Monday, September 30, 2013

New Shows: Michael J.Fox vs. Robin Williams in the Battle of the 80s Sitcom Stars

Michael J. Fox is one of those performers who rose above whatever vehicle he was in. I don't think either Family Ties or Spin City would've gone anywhere if they had cast, say, Matthew Broderick in the former or Charlie Sheen in the latter from the get-go. Whatever the show, Fox's intelligence and charm and especially his comic timing made it seem better than it was. But then Parkinson's Disease intruded. He still had America's heart, even if he wasn't doing television or movies anymore. That means great things were expected when he announced he was coming back to NBC with a sitcom built around him, acknowledging his Parkinson's and using it as part of the main character in The Michael J. Fox Show.

Contrast that with Robin Williams, who made his mark on TV as Mork of Mork and Mindy fame, and then went on to big, important movie roles where he was in turn lovable, crazy or really crazy. See: The Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting and The Birdcage for warm-and-fuzzy Williams, and The Fisher King, One Hour Photo and Insomnia for the nuts and psychopaths. I'm not sure where to put Popeye, except to note that he was terrific in it, and I totally believed him as a serious actor after that one.

But Williams, too, had off-screen problems, mostly centered around substance abuse and just how out-of-control his comedy stylings could get when he was on a roll. The word "manic" comes to mind. Yes, Williams has always been funny, but sometimes it's not that great to be identified with "crazy" as a matter of course. His new show on CBS isn't backing away from that, however, going with The Crazy Ones as a title.

Both shows are on Thursday night, and last week, they both held the 8 pm (Central) slot. The Michael J. Fox Show came in with a slightly better critical reception than The Crazy Ones, but The Crazy Ones had a better lead-in with The Big Bang Theory and its boffo ratings than MJF got with back-to-back episodes of Parks and Recreation, a much superior show that has much inferior ratings.

So whose comedy emerged supreme? For my money, it's The Crazy Ones. I watched both episodes of The Michael J. Fox Show and the pilot for The Crazy Ones, and I'm surprised to say this, but I liked The Crazy Ones a lot better in terms of character and situation. It also trounced The Michael J. Fox Show in the ratings.

In The Michael J. Fox Show, our hero is a much-beloved news anchor who left his desk due to Parkinson's but has now decided to come back. In The Crazy Ones, our hero is the wackadoodle head of an ad agency who works with his daughter (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and a very attractive subordinate (Mad Men's James Wolk). Neither premise is exactly inspired, but neither is terrible, either.

In The MJF Show, Michael J. Fox is as capable as ever, and Betsy Brandt is strong as his wife. I could take or leave the children, Katie Finneran is annoying as Fox's character's narcissistic sister, and the other supporting characters seem to come from The Comedy Stock Character Handbook instead of a place of creativity or inspiration. Mostly, I don't think I respond all that well to family-based sitcoms anymore, and that's exactly where this show finds its center. Teens, toddlers, underachievers at school, playtime at the park, hijinks ensuing...

Over at Crazy, we're playing with the grown-ups and their job-based hijinks instead. As I watched, I decided that Williams was fine, Gellar seemed uncomfortable, and Wolk was adorable. Plus Kelly Clarkson guested in the pilot as herself, or a version of herself who didn't want to sing the McDonald's jingle unless they sexed it up, and she was a lot of fun. Williams' brand of insanity actually worked when played off Clarkson and Wolk. And I wouldn't underestimate the power of Wolk being adorable. So far, anyway, I'd tune in just to see him sing jingles and fool around with clients.

Next week, these two shows will not be in direct competition, as Sean Hayes' Sean Saves the World moves into the 8 o'clock slot and The Michael J. Fox Show airs at 8:30 on NBC, while The Crazy Ones stays at 8, followed by that old chestnut, Two and a Half Men.

We'll see how the ratings shake out for The Crazy Ones without that Big Bang lead-in, and for The Michael J. Fox Show when it's drafting Sean Hayes' fumes. But for now, anyway, 80s star Robin Williams is leading 80s star Michael J. Fox in the battle for my TV time.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Fall Heats Up: Tons of TV Premieres Tomorrow

Sunday has become a hot night for television, with biggies like The Amazing Race, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, The Good Wife, Homeland, Mad Men, Once Upon a Time, Revenge and The Simpsons finding space there. And tomorrow... A whole lot of your favorites are launching their fall seasons.

On ABC, Once Upon a Time comes back, taking us to Neverland in pursuit of little Henry, who was kidnapped at the end of last season. Snow White and Prince Charming (, as well as Evil Queen Regina, Rumplestiltskin, Captain Hook and Emma, Snow and Charming's daughter, are on board for Neverland adventures. Henry's dad, sometimes whileand Belle, the one who goes with the Beast, stayed back in Storybrooke. But everybody should be mixing it up with villainous mermaids and a nasty and dangerous version of Peter Pan as we move into Once Upon a Time, season 3. Look for the special two-hour premiere beginning at 6 Central time on ABC.

Revenge also shows up for its Season 3 premiere on ABC, followed by a new show called Betrayal that is trying to capture the Revenge spirit, maybe with a soupcon of Scandal for good measure.. On Revenge, Emily let the cat out of the bag about really being Amanda at the end of last season, and she's getting married to Daniel as this one starts. Everybody's lives are complicated when Victoria's much-beloved (maybe too beloved?) son Patrick, played by Justin Hartley, shows up. And Betrayal mixes sex, politics, murder and an illicit love affair between a defense lawyer and a prosecutor's wife. They're both married, and who they're married to makes their affair a whole lot more complicated when the two attorneys take opposite sides of a very high-profile murder case.

The Good Wife, season 5
Over on CBS, it's time for The Amazing Race to take off from the starting line for its 23rd season. I'm not making that up. They've raced around the world 23 times now, winning nine Emmys in the Best Reality Competition Program category. The first leg of this season's race will be followed by the season premieres of The Good Wife and The Mentalist, at 8 and 9 Central time respectively. Alicia (Juliana Margulies) is jumping ship from Lockhart/Gardner to create a new firm with Cary and the ill-treated associates. "Everything Is Ending" is the name of the premiere episode, the one that begins the war between Alicia and her Lockhart/Gardner boss, Will, who also happens to be her ex-lover. And what about husband Peter now that he won his election?

Showtime is starting up its espionage thriller Homeland for its third season, showing what happens "during the aftermath of the horrific terror attack that decimated the U.S. intelligence apparatus and prompted a global manhunt for the world's most wanted terrorist, Nick Brody (Damien Lewis). As Carrie (Claire Danes) and Saul (Mandy Patinkin) begin to pick up the pieces of their shattered professional and personal lives, they are swept up in the political and media firestorm surrounding the terror attack and the subsequent search for Brody's whereabouts." The aftermath begins at 8 Central, followed by a new show called Masters of Sex, starring British actor Michael Sheen and American Lizzy Caplan as Masters and Johnson, the trailblazing duo -- he was a fertility expert and she was a twice-divorced single mother -- who became famous for their research into human sexuality starting in the late 50s.

And on HBO, you'll find another new series, this one a comedy called Hello Ladies, about a hapless web designer who moves from England to LA and begins a desperate search for love and romance. Or at least a date. The web designer looking to get it on with the ladies is played Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais's frequent collaborator and co-creator of the original British version of The Office, who recently went viral after a lip sync contest on Jimmy Fallon's Late Night. He's tall, he's spindly, he's affable, and he does a heck of a job on Beyonce's "Single Ladies," but the New York Times called his new show "mortifying and melancholy, played out against a tinselly, soft-jazz vision of nighttime Hollywood." If mortifying and melancholy is your thing, Hello Ladies may be just what you're looking for. Merchant's dating games begin at 9:30 pm Central time on HBO.

If your DVR is already overloaded, you'll still need to make room for the 75-minute series finale of Breaking Bad at 8 Central time on AMC. It's all over. Breaking Bad will be broken, one way or the other.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Nick Offerman Comes Back to U of I in October to Benefit Japan House

I remember Nick Offerman from his days as a theater student at the University of Illinois in Urbana, and I remember very distinctly that he didn't get cast a lot at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. I remember him playing a policeman blowing a whistle in a Feydeau farce in the Colwell Playhouse, and doing multiple scenes with fellow actors as part of a senior showcase. The group also sang Stephen Sondheim's "Opening Doors." And that's about all I recall, except for some work he did at Urbana's Station Theatre, outside the program. Oh, wait. There was also a new play staged at the Armory Free Theatre, written by Christopher Johnson, that involved Offerman stripping, wearing skimpy women's undies, and shoving his arm down a garbage disposal. At the time, I was all, ooh, gross, but in retrospect, I'm pretty impressed they could pull off the disposal/blood spatter effects in the Armory Theatre.

Now that Offerman is headed back to U of I for some special events planned to support Japan House, a project started by famed theater artist Shozo Sato on the Urbana campus, I've learned that he almost gave up his acting dream while he was a student, and it was Sato's Kabuki theater class that kept Offerman in the biz. At least that's what U of I's press release is telling us, as they announce that tickets are on sale now for a special Krannert Center stop on Offerman's "American Ham Tour," an evening of comedy and cautionary tales scheduled for the Foellinger Great Hall at 7:30 pm on October 26.

Apparently, Offerman was a frequent dinner guest at the Sato residence when he was an undergrad, and the two stayed in touch over the years, with the master of Zen arts also officiating when Offerman married actress Megan Mullally in 2003.

This visit to Champaign-Urbana will include not just the comedy show at Krannert on Saturday night, but also an "East Meets Midwest" eleven-course dinner on Sunday, October 27, with Shozo Sato and his wife, Alice, as a benefit for Japan House. Space is obviously very limited for the fundraising dinner, which will take place at Prairie Fruits Farms, and tickets are priced at $325 per person. If you'd like to see if tickets are still available for that event, you can visit the Japan House website or call them directly at 217-244-9934.

Chefs Shin Matsuda, Thad Morrow and Drew Starkey will be preparing this eleven-course meal, while a Japanese drumming group from Chicago called Ho Etsu Taiko will perform during dinner.

For all the details, check out the U of I press release here and Japan House's posted notice here.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Emmy Rundown (or Maybe Running Over Them with a Mack Truck)

I was going to do a rundown of the Emmy ceremonies that took place last Sunday night on CBS. But here's the deal. Some of the winners were surprising, but not necessarily in a good way (Jeff Daniels, you're a good actor and I like you, but The Newsroom is a dog. I know you're doing the best you can to elevate Aaron Sorkin's mess, but... It's still a mess.) and some of the winners weren't surprising at all, also not in a good way (Love you, Modern Family, but you really don't need to keep taking all the awards, ok? Leave some for some other comedies.)

Fine by me for Behind the Candelabra to clean up. Fine by me for Tony Hale to win for Veep. He's so good, as evidenced by the little act he did as his Veep character when Julia Louis-Dreyfus won her award, carrying her purse and whispering suggestions. He's the kind of actor who often doesn't get picked up on Emmy's radar, so good for him.

What else? I find Derek Hough smug and annoying and I wish anybody else had won that category. Why give it to someone whose choreography is too often about simulated blowjobs instead of, you know, dancing? The Voice? Really? Why did Neil Patrick Harris have so little to do? Why does anyone think boob jokes are still funny, even if it's NPH delivering them? Why am I still watching the Emmys?

While I was, I did a kind of stream-of-consciousness record of what was happening, but I didn't start till the first award. Whatever came before that is lost in the sands of time. Yep. That's how forgettable it was. But here are my thoughts on the 2013 Emmy Awards as they unfolded. Not a lot of detail, I admit. And again... Why am I still watching the Emmys?

Merritt Wever
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Merritt Wever, Nurse Jackie. Who is Merritt Wever?

Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series
Tina Fey and Tracey Wigfield, 30 Rock, "Last Lunch" episode

Tony Hale
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
Tony Hale, Veep. Aw, nice. One of our nieces was really into Arrested Development when she was little, and she told my husband he was just like Buster. (My Arrested Development twin was Maggie Lizer, by the way.) So when Tony Hale's name was announced, my husband said, "I won an award!" And that was nice, too.

Robin Williams' tribute to Jonathan Winters. Nicely done, but nothing so significant that it couldn't have been part of the standard In Memoriam reel.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep. Loved the bit. Funniest thing so far.

Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series
Gail Mancuso, Modern Family. I don't really have an opinion on who's who here, so it's good to see a female director win.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series
Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory. Whatever. He seems nice. He got Bob Newhart on his show, so bonus points for that.

Jean Stapleton
Rob Reiner's tribute to Jean Stapleton. It seemed heartfelt and sweet, and I do think Jean Stapleton and All in the Family were huge in the history of television. But I would've preferred at least a few clips. I wanted to hear Edith Bunker sing "Those Were the Days."

Elton John plays a new song in honor of Liberace and HBO's Behind the Candelabra. Total waste of time as far as I'm concerned.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie
Laura Linney, The Big C: Hereafter.

A bit about NPH and Excessive Hosting Disorder from his HIMYM pals. Mildly amusing.

Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series
Henry Bromell, Homeland. Very sweet to see this posthumous tribute.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad. She and I have the same birthday (along with Viola Davis) and she does a dandy job on Breaking Bad in what seems like more of a leading role than a supporting one. But this way she gets an award because she doesn't have to compete with Claire Danes, so good for her.

Jane Lynch's tribute to Cory Monteith. Which of these things is not like the other? Yeah, I thought so.

Outstanding Reality Competition Program
The Voice. Poor Amazing Race doesn't know what to do with itself without a win in this category.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
Bobby Cannavale, Boardwalk Empire. Outstanding Supporting Actor with the Most Violence in a Drama Series... Your girl is lovely, Bobby. And I like you. I really do. But I think Aaron Paul deserves this more than you do. And Mandy Patinkin deserves this more than you do.

Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom. Yeah, whatever. Daniels is fine, he really is, but the way Aaron Sorkin builds his characters, especially the female ones, makes this show unwatchable for me.

Don Cheadle and Carrie Underwood salute 1963 on television, as the year the Beatles hit The Ed Sullivan Show and TV anchors like Walter Cronkite covered the JFK assassination. Underwood sings "Yesterday." Very, very badly. I love "Yesterday," but it was a hit in 1965, not 1963. If I have to have a tribute to 1963, could I have a different one, please? One without Carrie Underwood anywhere near it? Talk about pitchy, dawg. It was also at this point (with Carrie Underwood and her milkmaid/Heidi/40-Year-Old Virgin Sound of Music poster showing up all over the place) that I realized that pretty much everyone with a special segment -- with the exception of Rob Reiner, I guess, and maybe Elton John -- also had a season premiere or new show or special project of some sort coming up very soon. So they were chosen so they could promote their stuff, then, and not because the people or events they were supposedly celebrating were worth celebration in any meaningful way. Got it.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
Claire Danes, Homeland. Of course. Hated her dress, by the way. The internet was divided. Thumbs down from here.

Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series
David Fincher, House of Cards. Nice to see the show get something.

Outstanding Writing in a Variety Series
The Colbert Report. Very much deserved.

Outstanding Directing in a Variety Series
Don Roy King, Saturday Night Live. Yeah, no.

Michael J. Fox tribute to Gary David Goldberg. I love Michael J. Fox and he certainly did have a strong connection to Gary David Goldberg, someone whose contributions to television were significant and important and over too soon. But these memorial segments are so not working. They just make me mad at the people who've passed away or at the people honoring them, and that is so wrong.

Outstanding Choreography
Derek Hough, Dancing with the Stars. Ugh.

The Colbert Report
Outstanding Variety Series
The Colbert Report. Sure.

Edie Falco tribute to James Gandolfini. She seemed very emotional and very committed to sharing what she loved about James Gandolfini. I found this the most moving of the tributes because of that.

Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special
Abi Morgan, The Hour. Did you see the other nominees? Tom Stoppard, Jane Campion, David Mamet, Richard LaGravenese... Good for you, Abi Morgan, for coming out with the trophy against that kind of competition.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie
James Cromwell, American Horror Story: Asylum. He's fabulous.

And then the more complete In Memoriam reel, which was, of course, hugely overshadowed by the special people with special tributes. Such a bad idea to single out the few and insult the many.

Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special
Steven Soderbergh, Behind the Candelabra.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie
Ellen Burstyn, Political Animals.

Michael Douglas as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie
Michael Douglas, Behind the Candelabra. Deserved and also very, very expected.

Outstanding Miniseries or Movie
Behind the Candelabra. Expected.

Outstanding Comedy Series
Modern Family. Of course.

Outstanding Drama Series
Breaking Bad. It deserves it. Mad Men, Downton Abbey and House of Cards (even Game of Thrones) are more my style, but I can't deny that Breaking Bad is a fabulous hour of TV. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are what makes it sing, though, and I'm sorry that the Academy didn't see that. They should've been throwing awards at those two whenever they could.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


If you're a fan of the Broadway show Spring Awakening, the one that set Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher, Jr., on the road to stardom, you'll want to get tickets now to Illinois State University's production of this teen angst rock musical. Singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik wrote the music for the show, while Steven Sater did the book and lyrics. The 2006 Broadway production of Spring Awakening took home eight Tony Awards, including wins for its book and score, direction, choreography, orchestrations, lighting design, featured actor Gallagher, and the show itself, which was named Best Musical.

Third-year MFA director Matthew Scott Campbell directs the ISU production, with Pete Guither as Musical Director, with designers including Harrison Hohnholt (lighting), Jamie Jones (costumes), Kieran Pereira (sound), Mary Rose (hair and make-up), and Andrew Sierszyn (scenic design). The cast includes Joey Banks, Nina Ganet, Joshua Gouskos, Bethany Hart, Carlos Kmet, Colin Lawrence, Ali Lockenvitz, Gloria Petrelli, Gabriella Rivera, Mitchell Schaeflein, Nico Tangorra, Colin Trevino-Odell and Abby Vombrack, with Christina Duris, Anne Olson, Joshua Pennington and Leonn Summers in the ensemble.

This is how ISU is describing the show:
This landmark musical, based on Frank Wedekind's controversial 1891 play, is an electrifying fusion of morality, sexuality and rock & roll that is exhilarating audiences across the nation like no other musical in years. Join this group of late 19th century German students on their passage as they navigate teenage self-discovery and coming of age anxiety in a powerful celebration of youth and rebellion.
Spring Awakening opens September 27 with a 7:30 pm performance at the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts. Subsequent performances are scheduled for September 28 and 29, and October 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. For all the details, visit this Facebook page for the event. To order tickets, call 438-2535 for the ISU Center for the Performing Arts box office, visit the box office in person, or go to Check out this page for more ticket how-to information.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Emmy Time!

Tomorrow the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences throws itself a big, boffo party on TV to hand out its annual primetime Emmy Awards for excellence in acting, directing, writing, choreography, and in general, putting on the shows we see on our tellies, whether they're reality TV-paloozas, comedies, dramas, mini-series, made-for-TV movies, animation, variety specials or pretty much anything else you can think of.

This will be Neil Patrick Harris's sixth year as host, and stars like Elton John, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Bob Newhart, LL Cool Jay, Jon Hamm, and Jimmies Fallon and Kimmel will drop by to help out.

Who wins is generally a fairly predictable affair, although this year there's a little more drama with non-televised, made-just-for-Netflix entries like House of Cards and Arrested Development. Will Kevin Spacey or Robin Wright win acting honors for the former or Jason Bateman for the latter? Can anybody upset the Homeland juggernaut from previous years? Will Breaking Bad break through and steal the hardware in the drama categories? Is Modern Family still the comedy to beat? Will HBO's Behind the Candelabra continue to clean up like it did at the technical awards ceremony last week?

I wouldn't be against any of those things, although I suppose someone has to emerge in the Homeland vs. Breaking Bad battle for Best Drama.

Because 2013 marks "the 50th Anniversary of two events that changed the face of our world," we will see a tribute to television milestones in 1963, with Don Cheadle and Carrie Underwood telling us about the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and how John F. Kennedy's assassination made TV come of age.

Jonathan Winters
And because television lost TV legends James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties, Spin City), Jean Stapleton (All in the Family) and Jonathan Winters (The Steve Allen Show, The Garry Moore Show, Mork and Mindy) this year, there will be a a special In Memoriam segment to honor the passing of these luminaries along with Cory Monteith of Glee. Monteith's career wasn't nearly as long as the others and not nearly as important in my mind. But Monteith was current and his death was shocking, and I guess that counts for something with the Academy. You'll excuse me while I spend my extra mourning time on Jonathan Winters, a comic genius and someone my mom absolutely loved. Today would've been her 89th birthday, and she would've been really cranky that her favorite had to share his In Memoriam time with a callow youth from Glee.

Much better examples of television icons who passed away this year? Larry Hagman of Dallas and I Dream of Jeannie fame, who was nominated for Emmys twice, and Jack Klugman, who starred in Quincy and The Odd Couple and won three Emmys. Come on, Academy! It's pretty clear who does and does not belong in the special group that gets extended tributes. And it ain't Cory Monteith.

Oh well. This complaint's for you, Mom.

Edie Falco will pay tribute to her Sopranos co-star James Gandolfini, while Michael J. Fox will step up for Family Ties and Spin City producer Gary David Goldberg, Rob Reiner will say a few words about Jean Stapleton and their All in the Family days; and Robin Williams will speak on behalf of his friend and mentor Jonathan Winters. And Jane Lynch, also of Glee, gets the Cory Monteith assignment.

The 65th Annual Emmy Awards will start at 7 pm Central on CBS tomorrow, September 22, 2013. You can see all kinds of extra info and behind-the-scenes video at the Emmys site.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

It's MUCH ADO, TONY & CLEO and ELIZABETH REX for the ISF in 14

The announcement has been made, and we now know what will be playing when the Illinois Shakespeare Festival begins again next summer. This time, Festival Artistic Director Kevin Rich has created an integrated line-up, with two Shakespeare choices that link together through the third, Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex, which imagines Queen Elizabeth I taking a breather in the barn where Shakespeare and his players are lingering after a performance. They've just performed Much Ado About Nothing, which will also be on the Illinois Shakespeare Festival bill, and we see William Shakespeare in the midst of writing Antony and Cleopatra, which is the other show chosen for next summer. Ta da! All tied up neatly with a bow, and one of the best uses of repertory, overlapping themes and shared cast ever.

Husband-and-wife directors Jonathan West and Paula Suozzi, who have extensive credits in Milwaukee, will direct Much Ado and Elizabeth Rex, while Rich will take on directorial duties for Antony and Cleopatra himself. Much Ado was last seen at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in 2007, while you'll have to go all the way to 1991 to find Antony and Cleopatra.

Here's how the Festival breaks down next year's offerings:

ELIZABETH REX, by Timothy Findley
Directed by Paula Suozzi

This brilliant, award-winning play imagines Queen Elizabeth spending the eve of her lover’s execution in the company of William Shakespeare and his players. Seeking distraction from her grief, she watches Much Ado About Nothing and afterward, banters with Beatrice about identity, sexuality and love. Meanwhile, Shakespeare is writing a new play called Antony and Cleopatra – about a Queen’s tragic affair with her lover – which Elizabeth finds suspiciously familiar. Elizabeth Rex will be performed in repertory with both of these Shakespearean plays, making a trilogy of uniquely connected productions that cannot be missed.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan West

Messina’s soldiers have returned from victory abroad to discover new battles at home! Sworn bachelor Benedick and his fiery counterpart Beatrice engage in a war of words and wit while their friends watch their attraction grow stronger with every skirmish. Meanwhile, Claudio plans to wed his true love Hero, unaware of the villainous Don John’s desire to foil his plans. Will these battles end in victory? Our hilarious production has the answers – and a whole lot more – featuring the same actors who play these parts in Elizabeth Rex.

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kevin Rich

Shakespeare’s epic portrayal of Mark Antony’s intoxication with the stunning Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Drunk with passion, the Roman war hero and leader neglects his duties back home, ignores prophecies, and enrages his former allies by choosing Egypt and its beautiful ruler while the Roman Empire hangs in the balance. When Octavius Caesar turns on Antony, is his attack on Egypt enough to rouse the smitten soldier into action? Often requested and seldom performed, this production is as enchanting as its Queen. In our repertory, Cleopatra will be played by the same actress who plays Queen Elizabeth in Elizabeth Rex.

I am loathe to suggest I called this combination, because, well, I didn't. Last time I was making guesses, I went with Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar. But back when I reviewed Elizabeth Rex at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, I did include this little addendum:

As a side note, I would love to see Elizabeth Rex played in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing, which begins this play, and Antony and Cleopatra, which is supposedly being written during this play, with some of the same actors who are supposedly playing roles in Much Ado taking those roles in Much Ado, and the actor we see as Benedick and reading a few of Antony's lines taking those roles, too. Maybe we should even throw in A Winter's Tale, so the bear has something else to do?

With three plays in the Festival's rotation, there's no room for A Winter's Tale, but the other three are represented, so... Great minds think alike?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tickets Now on Sale for Annual Discovery Walk

Every October, the McLean County Museum of History and Illinois Voices Theatre stage a Discovery Walk at Bloomington's Evergreen Cemetery, with local actors portraying area citizens from days past. Volunteer tour guides lead groups around the cemetery, stopping to hear from characters like Judge David Davis and Jesse Fell, real people who once made waves around here and were laid to their eternal rest at Evergeen Cemetery at least 25 years ago.

Harry Green, one of the Flying LaVans
Neither Davis nor Fell nor any member of their families are on the program this year, but you will get a chance to meet the Flying LaVans, AKA Fred and Harry Green, daring young men on the flying trapeze; Maria Sophia Bach, who made trousers for the troops while her husband served in the Union Army; Henry L. Brown, who fought against discrimination his entire life; civic leader Ruby Edwards; parade enthusiast Lloyd Eyer; Civil War veteran and McLean County Sheriff James Goodheart, and Alice Orme Smith, a World War I Red Cross nurse who reinvented herself as a landscape architect when her war service was done.

Alice Orme Smith
I know the most about Alice Orme Smith at the moment, because I will be portraying her! Last time I did the Discovery Walk, I was another member of the Orme family, Alice's aunt, Lucy Orme Morgan, who was a charter member of the McLean County Red Cross, a philanthropist, and a major proponent of women's suffrage. Strong ladies in the Orme family!

Alice served on the frontlines with the Red Cross in France, and then achieved a great deal of success with her landscape designs, including designing the Main Vista and the Garden of Religion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and the grounds of the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut.

You can read more about Alice and the Flying LaVans and this year's other featured characters at the Museum's new website here, and then get tickets at the Museum, the Garlic Press, Casey's Garden Shop, or at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery. If you have questions, please call the Museum at 309-827-0428.

The 2013 Discovery Walk will take place on Saturdays and Sundays, October 5 and 6 and 12 and 13, with tours beginning at 11 am and 2 pm each day. And if you see me out there, be sure to call me Alice. Or maybe Miss Smith.

Monday, September 16, 2013

TV Legend Bob Newhart Wins an Emmy!

He has a Peabody, a Golden Globe, a Grammy, a Critics Choice Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And he's been nominated for an Emmy Award seven times. He's had four TV shows with his name in the title -- 1961's "The Bob Newhart Show," a variety hour and the one that won the Peabody and the Golden Globe; the MTM sitcom broadcast from 1972 to 1978 also called "The Bob Newhart Show," where he played a Chicago psychologist named Bob Hartley who had goofy patients and a lovely wife played by Suzanne Pleshette; "Newhart," another half-hour comedy, where he played a guy named Dick Loudon, who ran an inn in Vermont, from 1982 to 1990; and plain old "Bob," a show about a cartoonist that lasted one season and change in 1992 and 1993. Newhart famously joked that after those four, the only thing left to call a show of his was "The."

Three times, Bob Newhart was nominated by Emmy voters for his leading role on "Newhart," and then for a guest appearance on "ER" and as a supporting actor in the miniseries "The Librarian: The Curse of the Judas Chalice." Way back in 1962, he was nominated for writing that original "Bob Newhart Show." But he came away empty every time.

Now, at the age of 84, Bob Newhart has finally won his Emmy. This time it was for a guest appearance on "The Big Bang Theory," where he played Professor Proton, the host of a children's science show many years ago. After finding out that Professor Proton, their childhood hero, is available for personal appearances, "Big Bang" characters Sheldon and Leonard hire him just to hang out with them. Newhart's Emmy was handed out at the Primetime Creative Arts Emmy ceremony last night, which honors guest actors along with variety specials and interactive programs, animation and reality shows, documentaries and informational programs, voiceovers, art direction, costuming, casting, makeup, editing and cinematography.

The other guest actors honored were Carrie Preston ("The Good Wife") and Dan Bucatinsky ("Scandal") in the drama categories, and Melissa Leo ("Louie") as the other comedy winner.

Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn were named Outstanding Host(s) for "Project Runway," while "Undercover Boss" got the award for Outstanding Reality Show, "South Park" won for the fourth time as Outstanding Animated Program, and HBO's Liberace biopic "Behind the Candelabra" racked up eight wins, taking home trophies for art direction, casting, costumes, hairstyles, makeup (prosthetic and otherwise), editing and sound.

You can check out all the winners (and pictures and news and interviews and other fun stuff) at the Emmy site here. And tune in on Sunday, September 22 to see the rest of the Primetime categories awarded. Neil Patrick Harris will be your host once again.

Friday, September 13, 2013

U of I's Dirden and Dickinson Go ALL THE WAY with LBJ (and Bryan Cranston)

Broadway World is reporting that University of Illinois alum Brandon Dirden will play Martin Luther King, Jr., opposite Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston as LBJ in a new production of Robert Schenkkan's All the Way opening tonight at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts

All the Way won Schenkkan the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award last April, after it was performed as part of the "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle" project at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the summer of 2012. Schenkkan has shown before that he likes to delve into American history; his Kentucky Cycle, which takes a dark look at the state of Kentucky from its beginnings to the late 20th century, won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1992. All the Way explores the journey of Lyndon Johnson, "a Shakespearean figure of towering ambition and appetite," as he came to power and then "hurl[ed] himself into Civil Rights legislation, throwing the country into turmoil." When they awarded the play their New Play Award, the American Theatre Critics Association called All the Way "an engrossing, epic" play and described Schenkkan's portrait of LBJ as "complex, obscene, brilliant and ruthless."

Cranston knows a bit about "complex, obscene, brilliant and ruthless" after playing high school teacher/drug dealer Walter White on AMC's Breaking Bad since 2008. He earned three Emmy wins in a row in the Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series category for that role. On film, you'll find him in Argo and Little Miss Sunshine, and his television appearances include six years as the dad on Malcolm in the Middle, a recurring role as dentist Tim Whatley on Seinfeld, and way back when, a stint as good guy Doug Donovan on the soap opera Loving.

Brandon J. Dirden has an MFA in acting from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as does his wife, Crystal A. Dickinson, who will play Coretta Scott King in All the Way. Dirden won an Obie for his role as Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson at Signature Theatre and his Broadway credits include Clybourne Park, Enron and Prelude to a Kiss. Chicago audiences may remember him from Magnolia at the Goodman.

Dickinson starred in Clybourne Park both on and off-Broadway, and she did Broke-ology at Playwrights Horizon and The First Breeze of Summer at Lincoln Center.

Others of note in the cast of All the Way include Reed Birney as Humbert Humphrey and Strom Thurmond, Dan Butler as George Wallace and four other roles, Peter J. Fernandez, Dakin Matthews, Ethan Phillips, and Michael McKean as J. Edgar Hoover and Robert Byrd.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

This Week in Theatre: EARTH AND SKY Opens Tonight at Heartland

Douglas Post's neo-noir thriller Earth and Sky opens tonight at Heartland Theatre with a special Pay What You Can preview performance that begins at 7:30 pm. These previews tend to be quite popular, so you should probably plan to be there by 7 to get in line.

I watched one of Earth and Sky's dress rehearsals earlier this week, and I can tell you that director Don LaCasse and his cast and crew have put together a terrific little show. Heartland doesn't do mysteries all that often, which is why this show stands apart a bit. It's definitely mysterious, following the story of Sara McKeon, a librarian who also writes poetry, and what happens -- backwards and forwards in her life -- when her boyfriend disappears from her life. Sara's love story shifts into reverse so that we can see how she and David met and forged a connection, while the police procedural part of the plot goes forward, from the moment Sara finds out her lover is gone through her journey into danger and lies as she searches for the truth.

I tend to like plays and films that fool with form, and there are quite a few examples of this "reverse chronology" phenomenon. Harold Pinter's Betrayal is probably the most famous on stage, while the movie Memento may take those honors on film, but there's also Alan Ayckbourn's Time of My Life, with its three overlapping "time streams," including one moving in reverse, Merrily We Roll Along, which goes backwards in both the Kaufman and Hart original play and the Furth/Sondheim musical version, Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, and parts of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where the technique is employed particularly effectively.

Since you're solving a mystery forwards as well as putting together the fragments of a romance backwards, Earth and Sky will command your attention throughout its 100-minute playing time. Karen Hazen, who plays Sara McKeon at Heartland, creates a compelling, sympathetic heroine, and the supporting cast is pretty terrific, too, with a range of suspicious cops and robbers that is quite fascinating. I was also impressed with Kenneth Johnson's "under the L" scenic design, which moves seamlessly inside and outside seamy Chicago corners, dives and alleys, and the sound and light cues from Caisa Sandberg and Anita McDaniel that move us from past to present and back.

Performances of Earth and Sky continue Friday and Saturday -- but not Sunday -- this week, with Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances during the rest of September. Ticket prices range from $15 for general admission to $12 for seniors and $5 for students. You can see show times here and get reservation information here.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sondheim's MERRILY Coming to Movie Theatres

I love Merrily We Roll Along, the backwards musical (and famous flop) from Stephen Sondheim and George Furth that played for only 60 performances (including 44 previews) when it hit Broadway in 1981. Furth wrote the book of Merrily, which is based on a play by Kaufman and Hart that is similarly backwards, while Sondheim's score includes amazing pieces like "Not a Day Goes By," "Our Time," "Opening Doors" and "Good Thing Going."

People have speculated that it's the backwards thing that gave Merrily We Roll Along problems, but I think it had more to do with the span of time it covers. Since we see Franklin Shepard, his songwriting partner Charley Kringas, and their writer friend Mary Flynn, from their 40s back to their college years, the question has always been whether to cast young actors who can play older at the beginning, or older actors who can play younger by the end. That initial Broadway production went young, with people like Jason Alexander, Liz Callaway and Tonya Pinkins very early in their careers. Pinkins, for example, was only 19 at the time.

Subsequent productions have gone for a middle ground, with an off-Broadway version in 1994 that starred Malcom Gets, then in his 30s and a revival as part of New York City Center's Encores! show with 30-year-old Colin Donnell and 32-year-old Lin Manuel Miranda.

But the 2012 version, directed by Maria Friedman, herself a three-time Olivier Award winner, for London's Menier Chocolate Factory moved it up a notch, featuring Mark Umbers (39) and Jenna Russell (45) as Frank and Mary. And it apparently worked, since that production earned high marks from critics and from Mr. Sondheim himself. The New York Times quotes Sondheim as saying, "This production of ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ is not only the best I’ve seen, but one of those rare instances where casting, direction and show come together in perfect combination, resulting in the classic ideal of the sum being greater than the parts." Heady praise coming from Steve himself!

That quote accompanied an article at the NYT about the fact that the Menier/Friedman Merrily was filmed for broadcast purposes. The British Merrily We Roll Along will be shown in movie theaters all over England and the United States and Canada, with most shows scheduled for October 23rd. Individual theaters may choose to switch up the dates, though, so you'll need to check with yours to make sure.

The bad news is that nobody in Bloomington-Normal is on the list so far. But the good news is that Peoria and Champaign-Urbana (or Savoy, where the theater is) have stepped up, and Merrily We Roll Along will definitely roll along within driving distance. Fingers crossed that a Bloomington or Normal movie theater gets smart and puts Merrily on the bill here, too.

Tickets are slated to be on sale as of September 13, according to Fathom Events' site. I don't know about you, but I will be watching out and making my plans. I don't miss a Merrily We Roll Along, especially one as highly touted as this one.

This Week in Theatre: ARSENIC AND OLD LACE Finishes Up at Community Players

Community Players finishes up its run of Joseph Kesselring's homicidal comedy Arsenic and Old Lace this weekend, with just four performances left.

Director Tom Smith is at the helm of Players' Arsenic, with a cast that includes Carol Scott and Tricia Stiller as the sweetly murderous old ladies, Abby and Martha Brewster; Brian Artman as their (fairly) sane nephew Mortimer, the one who stumbles over bodies in the window seat; Joel Baldwin as Teddy, the nephew who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt and keeps charging up San Juan Hill (the stairs) at inopportune moments; Nathan Botthorff as yet a third nephew, the ghastly Jonathan; Hannah Kerns as Mortimer's love interest, Elaine; Andy Carey as her dad; Thom Rakestraw as Jonathan Brewster's evil henchman; Aaron Watson as a man who makes the mistake of attempting to rent a room from Abby and Martha; and Spencer Powell, Jeremy Stiller, Alan Wilson and Jim Woodward as the police officers who come and go through the Brewster household when things start to get crazy.

Community Players has helpfully shared a behind-the-scenes video with actors and staff giving you the details on the characters and action, as well as a whole lot of performance photos from Assistant Director Joe Strupek that show off the fabulous set designed by Jeremy Stiller and Hannah Kerns, and Eddy Arteman's colorful parade of costumes.

Arsenic and Old Lace was written with such a light tone that it's difficult to believe it was based on actual events. But it was! As it happens, there was a real elderly lady named Amy Archer-Gilligan who had a penchant for poisoning her husbands and the unlucky residents of her Archer Home for Aged People. Read all about the real case here. Kudos to Kesselring for making murder funny and turning Arsenic and Old Lace into a perennial favorite at regional theatres.

For ticket information on Community Players' Arsenic and Old Lace, click here. You can also visit Community Players' Facebook page to see photos and information.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Heartland's FOWL PLAYS Open for Submissions

As of September 1, Heartland Theatre's annual 10-minute play contest is open for entries. That means playwrights who have a never-before-produced 10-minute play dealing with or inspired by birds in any way, shape or form -- any bird aphorism, idiom, song, fairytale, sports mascot, game, or that dream of dancing Swan Lake you've had since childhood -- may now enter those plays through the Heartland website.

This year's theme is FOWL PLAYS, as described above, and each play must contain some reference to or involvement of a member of the bird family, whether that's a chicken dance, a restaurant that specializes in duck a l'orange, or an adult with a pesky addiction to Big Bird on Sesame Street. (Who isn't addicted to Big Bird? He's awesome.) That addiction could also be to the Illinois State University Redbird, the Baltimore Oriole, Angry Birds, Edgar Allen Poe's Raven, or Alice's dodo (or flamingo) in Wonderland. The bird field is wide open!

The eight winning plays selected in this year's contest will be performed during the annual 10-minute play festival in June, 2014. It's a popular part of Heartland's schedule and last year's festival was very well-attended, making this a great opportunity for playwrights to see their work on stage and hear their words in performance.

You can get all the details here, and take a look at the rules and guidelines here. Suffice it to say you need at least two characters but no more than four, a play that depends mostly on dialogue, and a play that is really, really good, with something to say.

The deadline for all entries is February 1, 2014, but if you'd like the possibility of feedback or revisions from the judges, that deadline is January 1. Note that that's the possibility of feedback, not a guarantee. The revision possibility is left open for those scripts in by January 1 which are otherwise well-written and strong submission, but contain something which doesn't quite fit Heartland's needs -- a fifth character, a script that seems likely to run just a bit longer than ten minutes -- that the judges feel it would be fairly easy to fix. This revision option is used infrequently and is only for strong plays with some small issue that doesn't quite work for Heartland.

In the meantime, work on that Fowl Play!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Illinois Shakes Fest Will Announce 2014 Season September 17

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival is staging an EVENT (not just a press conference, in other words) to announce what they'll be performing next summer at the Theatre at Ewing.

Tuesday, September 17, at 6:30 pm, the big announcement will be made. To make it more festive, Two Blokes and a Bus, the red doubledecker bus featuring street cuisine, will be parked in the driveway to provide food. They'll pull up the bus at 5:30 to give you time to get a snack (or dinner) before the announcement.

This summer, you will recall, we saw a bloody good Macbeth, a fizzy and funny Comedy of Errors, and the sweet, sad, eccentric beauty of Failure: A Love Story, a new play by Philip Dawkins. If past history is any guide, we can expect two Shakespeare plays and one "something completely different" again this time out. What will it be?

I'm betting against As You Like It, The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Taming of the Shrew, since those are the most recently seen comedies. My money is on Twelfth Night, which hasn't been seen at the Festival since 2005 and is, after all, one of Shakespeare's best. On the other hand, Two Gentlemen of Verona, a play I consider a lesser light, has a thing for years ending in 4 -- it hit the schedule in 1994 and 2004 -- so I wouldn't bet against it for 2014. Or maybe Much Ado About Nothing, which enjoyed a high-profile movie directed by Joss Whedon this year, will get the nod.

On the darker side, Othello, Romeo and JulietRichard III and Titus Andronicus have all shown up in recent years, but it's been awhile for stalwarts like King Lear, Hamlet, Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice. Of those, Julius Caesar seems the most likely to me, but who knows? It could be a wild card choice like Timon of Athens or Troilus and Cressida, neither of which has been done at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, or even Two Noble Kinsmen, the tragicomedy attributed to John Fletcher and William Shakespeare that's only recently been included as part of the Shakespeare canon.

And as for that third spot... Well, that could be most anything! Restoration comedies have filled that slot, as have Cyrano, The Three Musketeers, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and the Reduced Shakespeare Company's The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Last summer's Failure was probably the most completely different of all the completely different options, which makes handicapping next year's choice pretty much impossible.

If you'd like to refresh your memory of the summer of 2013, click here to see the pictures the Festival is currently offering. And if you're dying to know what's coming in 2014, you'll be at Ewing Manor on the 17th at 6:30 pm for the announcement.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Farewell, FUTURAMA

Please note that I'm spoiling the end of Futurama like crazy here, so if you haven't seen the last episode, go watch it and come back...

But what a lovely way to end the show. Again. The animated series had already come and gone once, so the second series finale had to be pretty special. And it was. I'm a sucker for the last episodes of TV shows, anyway, and I've watched a few for shows I didn't follow during the rest of their run. But Futurama... I admit I missed a few episodes over the years, but I had a fond spot for you, anyway, you crazy kids. And this second series finale went out with a bang -- or at least a broken universe -- as it tied up its stories, gave its central romance a fitting ending (and beginning), and hinted at the possibility of future adventures for all its animated characters.

These last episodes of Futurama have been both sentimental and sweet, as Fry revisited his mom back in the 20th century, at least in his dreams, Zoidberg got a girlfriend, and Fry proposed to Leela, but cynical and snarky, too, with an Agatha Christie/Alien mashup, Bender trying to give a tap-dancing rival a heart attack, and the whole Fry-breaks-the-universe thing in the finale.

That's been the joy of Futurama, the way it mixes sweetness and cynicism, yuks and intelligence (and Nixon's head in a glass jar) and makes you actually care about a bunch of two-dimensional cartoon people (and creatures). In the last episode, "Meanwhile," Fry steals the Professor's time-shifting machine, attempts to stop time to savor a moment with Leela, screws up big-time, and ends up freezing time for the entire universe, except for him and Leela. They have a whole lifetime together, roaming around everywhere they can think of, with the landscape and its people stuck in the moment Fry broke the time machine. But then Professor Farnsworth arrives as a deus ex machina to offer them the chance to go back to before he invented the machine. And that means we can imagine Fry and Leela and Amy and Zoidberg and Hermes and even nasty old Bender spinning into new intergalactic mischief and catastrophes. It's just that we won't get to see them.

Thanks, Matt Groening and David X. Cohen, the guys in charge, and Ken Keeler, the writer, for a really sweet finale and a definite lump in my throat. If you want to see and read more about the finale, you can find highlights and other goodies at Comedy Central and an enlightening interview with David X. Cohen at the AV Club. You can even get an app for your phone to create your own head in a jar. Or, if you prefer to wallow in grief like Forrest Wickman at Slate, well, there's that choice, too.

Bye, Futurama. You've been swell.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Look Back at the Early Days of Cinema

The first part of a 15-episode documentary called The Story of Film: An Odyssey aired on Turner Classic Movies last night, along with some of the early movies referenced in this piece of the documentary, which covered the period from 1895 to 1912. If you're among those who think there were no films before 1912, last night's episode was a revelation. Along with the documentary, last night we got a trio of short films directed by French movie pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché and Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon, among other treats.

The footage of important bits of film history as well as memories that went along with them were very moving, and a highlight of the documentary, especially when you hear commentary about D.W. Griffith and the messages behind his Birth of a Nation and then get to see the film itself to compare and contrast. Narrator Mark Cousins, a film critic from Northern Ireland, notes that film art is "a lie to tell the truth," a theme that echoes throughout and is almost turned upside-down by Birth of a Nation. It's certainly thought-provoking if you are a student of film or theatre, where scholars have been arguing about truth and lies, reality and fantasy since Plato.

It's also an extraordinary undertaking for TCM to pull so many little-seen films out of the storage lockers of history to accompany the pieces of the documentary. As TCM's materials tell us, "By December, the entire festival will include 119 movies from 29 countries, many of them TCM premieres."

If the documentary has shortcomings, for me they lie in 1) Cousins' accent, which has such a distinct cadence and incessant rhythm that it becomes hard to listen to him the entire length of the program, and 2) Cousins' very specific opinions, which place European and Asian cinema far above films and filmmakers from the United States (and especially Hollywood). He talks about art versus commerce and what he sees as the failure of the form when American moneymen got their hands on it, which is certainly a valid opinion, but he returns to it a little too often. Still, it's illuminating to see early French, Swedish, Russian and Japanese films as well as American efforts, and you won't have any trouble figuring out Cousins' point of view as he traces the early influences in the world of cinema.

The remaining 14 pieces of The Story of Film will air on Monday nights at 9 pm Central all the way through December. The September 9 episode will cover 1918-28 in the US, with 1918-1932 and a more worldly focus on September 16, with the arrival of sound and the 1930s in Part IV on the 23rd, and the effects of World War II in Part V on September 30. Check out the TCM schedule for details.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

September Kicks Fall Theatre Season into High Gear

Whether it feels like summer has left or not, school is back in session, theaters are gearing up for fall, and your entertainment options are going to look a little more serious from now through the end of the year. Hang on tight. September is here!

Right this very minute, Heartland Theatre is accepting entries in its annual 10-minute play competition. FOWL PLAYS (or plays with some connection to the bird world) will be accepted through February 1, 2014. You can see all the details here and get to writing about the goose that laid the golden egg, blackbirds singing in the dead of night, a partridge in a pear tree, or why the caged bird never sings.

Community Players opens its first show of autumn with Arsenic and Old Lace, the Joseph Kesselring classic that made a lot of people look at elderly ladies and their tea parties a little differently. It's an up-tempo comedy set around murder, as sweet old Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha, played for Community Players by Carol Scott and Tricia Stiller, entice lonely gents into their parlor to knock them off with poisoned elderberry wine. It's the kindest thing to do, the aunts assure their nephew, Mortimer Brewster (Brian Artman), the only member of the family who seems to have avoided the Brewster penchant for galloping insanity. Tom Smith directs Players' Arsenic and Old Lace, which will take the stage from September 6 to 15. To proceed directly to ticket-buying, click here.

And Heartland Theatre offers its first fall show as well, with the brooding neo-noir thriller Earth and Sky, by Chicago playwright Douglas Post, opening on September 12. Don LaCasse directs a cast that includes Karen Hazen as Sarah, a librarian and poet who finds herself way outside her comfort zone,  thrust into a scary urban landscape of cops and robbers, good guys and bad guys and guys in between, with all kinds of shades of gray. Local actress and poet Kathleen Kirk was in the original production of Earth and Sky, and she is acting as assistant director and dramaturg on this one. Read about Earth and Sky here, and check out the schedule of shows here.

The always-amusing Wayne Brady pops up at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts on September 13 for one night only. I don't know about you, but Brady was always my favorite among the Whose Line regulars. (Note that if you made me pick one overall favorite, I would've gone for Chip Esten, but he wasn't there every week.) The BCPA tells us that Mr. Brady will be "doing what he does best... making funny stuff up off the top of his head! Funny with a sweet edginess… A night of laughter you’ll never forget." For ticket information, click here.

Eureka College Theatre is hosting a 24-hour play festival on September 14. I don't have details on how exactly they're structuring it, but other 24-hour play events have pulled playwrights and actors together in one place to brainstorm, create the play on the fly, rehearse it overnight, and then get it up on its feet the very next day. In other Eureka College Theatre news, their 2013-14 season will include The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) from the Reduced Shakespeare Company September 26 to October 5, Aristophanes' The Frogs (with what sounds like puppets instead of a swimming pool, where The Frogs is usually performed) from February 25 to March 1, and the musical Godspell, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, from April 9 to 13, 2014.

Back at Community Players, auditions will be held starting at 7 pm on September 16, 17 and 18 for Spamalot, the irreverent musical comedy "lovingly ripped off from" the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Spamalot won the 2003 Tony Award for Best Musical and received 14 other Tony nominations. There are lots of roles in this one, from King Arthur to his coconut-carrying servant, Patsy, and Sir Lancelot, Bravely Bold Sir Robin (who is neither brave nor bold), Sir Galahad, the Lady of the Lake, the Black Knight (who is missing a few limbs), and the Knights Who Say Ni! Python Eric Idle wrote the book and the lyrics, collaborating with John Du Prez and Neil Innes on the music, and the score includes "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," which was originally written for Monty Python's Life of Brian.

Illinois State University's theatre season jump-starts on September 27, when Spring Awakening, Duncan Sheik's alt-rock musical about sexual awakening and repression among turn-of-the-century teenagers, opens at the ISU Center for the Performing Arts. I did a post on who's who in director Matthew Scott Campbell's cast here, or you can find more details on the Facebook page for the event. Also check out ticket information here. Tickets for Spring Awakening are available at Ticketmaster and through the CPA box office at 309-438-2535.

I will be back with more of the September schedule for area theatre as information becomes available. Until then... Start making reservations!