Friday, November 29, 2013

It's Preston Sturges Screwball Comedy Night on Turner Classic Movies

Turner Classic Movies has announced that my favorite, Fred Astaire, is their star of the month for December, meaning there will be Astaire movies every Wednesday in December. I will be telling you more about that as the first Fred Film arrives, but before we even get to December, TCM is offering one last Screwball Comedy Friday in November. And it's a goodie, with three classics from director/screenwriter Preston Sturges taking the spotlight tonight.

These three are at the top of my Best Ever Lists, whether you're talking screwball, "dialogue comedies," romantic comedies, films of the 40s, or any other classification that includes funny, irreverent, witty movies like The Lady Eve, Christmas in July and The Palm Beach Story.

The Lady Eve is up first, starting at 7 pm Central time, and it's a gem, with a fun, feisty Barbara Stanwyck matched up with a very different Henry Fonda than you're probably used to. Stanwyck is a charming con woman named Jean who travels across the Atlantic with her wily dad, played by the irascible Charles Coburn, with Jean romancing rich men and the two combining to fleece their marks at card games. Fonda is Charles Poncefort Pike, AKA Hopsie, the shy heir to an ale fortune who is more interested in snakes than the eligible misses who keep throwing themselves in his path. But Jean's tricks are more sophisticated than most, and she snares poor Hopsie easily. It's Girl Cons Boy, Girl Gets Boy, Girls Loses Boy When He Finds Out About the Con Thing, and then Girl Plots Revenge. Her revenge scheme involves concocting a second identity, Lady Eve, who just happens to look exactly like Jean. Poor Hopsie falls hook, line and sinker all over again. It's adorable. And that premise creates a whirlwind of crazy antics as Jean, her dad, his old friend (played by the wonderful Eric Blore), Hopsie, his dad (Eugene Pallette, a staple of screwball comedies), and Hopsie's handler Muggsy (William Demarest eons before My Three Sons) all plot and counterplot.

Christmas in July, whose title I borrowed for my second book, is up at 8:45 pm Central. It was Sturges' second directorial effort, after The Great McGinty, and the eighth film for which he wrote the screenplay. It does seem less sophisticated than The Lady Eve or The Palm Beach Story, but it's still fun and sprightly, with a hapless nice guy hero, played here by Dick Powell, who dreams of winning a contest and $25,000 by writing a slogan for a coffee company. His idea? "If you can't sleep at night, it's not the coffee, it's the bunk." A prank by his coworkers makes Powell's Jimmy think he won, and, after a series of misunderstandings involving actually getting a check from the coffee company, he makes himself the most popular guy in the neighborhood by buying presents for everyone on his street, as well as an engagement ring for his girlfriend. Christmas in July has that same sweetly satirical edge that makes Preston Sturges's work rise above, and the supporting cast, with Demarest again as well as Georgia Caine, Jimmy Conlin, Franklin Pangborn, Ernest Truex and Robert Warwick, is first-rate.

TCM's little Sturges Fest will finish up with the goofiest of the three, The Palm Beach Story, at 10 pm. In Palm Beach, Sturges plays with two sets of twins (both played by Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea), a millionaire known as "The Wienie King," a train car full of the drunken members of the Ale and Quail Club, Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor as a rich but ridiculous brother and sister, and William Demarest, Jimmy Conlin, Franklin Pangborn, Ernest Truex and Robert Warwick from the Sturges stock company. There really isn't any good way to describe this fast, fizzy, flaky comedy, except to say that it's very funny and completely crazy. And you absolutely must stick around till the very end to see the beginning pay off.

I love romantic comedies, and these three are some of the best ever on film. For my money, rom coms haven't been the same since the 40s, when directors Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, Frank Capra, George Cukor and Mitchell Leisen were at the top of their game. To revisit the Golden Age of romantic comedy, all you need to do is tune in Turner Classic Movies beginning at 7 tonight.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Movie for Thanksgiving? Try MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET

If you are eschewing Black Friday shopping on Thursday, if Charlie Brown Thanksgiving or NFL football isn't how you want to spend your Thanksgiving evening, you may find getting out to the Normal Theater a better option.

We all think of Miracle on 34th Street as a Christmas movie, given the whole "Is he the real Santa?" plot. But it begins with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, making it appropriate for Turkey Day, too.

I chose Miracle on 34th Street as one of my favorite holiday movies back in 2010. Here's what I said about it then:

"Miracle on 34th Street (the 1947 version) is one of the most recognizable holiday movies around, so everybody should know its story about a cynical little girl named Susan (played by the unbelievably cute Natalie Wood) and her hard-working single mother (Maureen O'Hara), neither of whom believes in Santa Claus. But then what appears to be the real Kris Kringle (played by the even more adorable Edmund Gwenn) arrives at Mom's department store and a firestorm of controversy erupts. Is he crazy? Is he the real deal?

"A handsome lawyer (John Payne) lends a hand when Kris has a sanity hearing, Mom gets a romance, Susan starts to believe that wishes can come true, and everybody has a Merry Christmas. Well, maybe not the cranky pencil pusher who put Santa Claus on trial.

"It's a classic for a reason: All the elements work perfectly, the players are terrific and just what they need to be, and both Edmund Gwenn and Natalie Wood knock it out of the park."

The Normal Theater will be showing Miracle on 34th Street at 7 pm on Thursday and Friday, November 28 and 29. All tickets are $7.

Monday, November 25, 2013

OTHER DESERT CITIES Auditions Tonight and Tomorrow at Heartland Theatre

Director Sandra Zielinski will hold auditions tonight and tomorrow night for three roles in Heartland Theatre's production of Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz, scheduled for performance in Feburary 2014.

Heartland has produced Baitz before, with A Fair Country in 2002 and Three Hotels back in 1997. Baitz's work often delves into family dysfunction and political and ethical conflicts among family members, an excellent match for an intimate space like Heartland where you can see all the characters up close.  

A Fair Country and Other Desert Cities were both finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, with the 2011-12 Broadway production of Other Desert Cities also nominated for five Tony Awards. Judith Light won the Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in Featured Role in a play for her role as Silda Grauman, a warm and funny woman who also happens to be a bit of a mess. Silda depends on the financial support of her wealthy sister, Polly Wyeth, even though they have diametrically opposed views of the world. That's where Baitz's skill with fully drawn characters comes into play -- everybody has shades of gray, good and bad, no matter which side of the political or social divide they fall on.

Polly and Silda are two of the characters Zielinski will be looking to cast at these auditions. The third is Lyman Wyeth, Polly's statesman of a husband, a former ambassador with all the right connections in all the right places even though he is officially retired from politics. On Broadway, Stacy Keach played Lyman, while Stockard Channing took on Polly, his sharp, polished, perfect-on-the-outside wife.

The other roles in the play are the two Wyeth children, novelist Brooke, who has come home carrying a tell-all memoir that divulges her side of family secrets, and TV producer Trip, who tries hard not to take sides in the family wars. Those roles have been cast, but their presence as characters is key to understanding how their parents and Aunt Silda operate within the context of the play. It's Brooke's arrival with her time-bomb of a book that sets everything in motion in Other Desert Cities. Rachel Griffiths played Brooke on Broadway, while Thomas Sadoski, recently seen in HBO's The Newsroom, played Trip.

For all the details on Polly, Lyman and Silda, click here to see Heartland's audition notice. Auditions will be held from 7 to 9:30 pm at Heartland Theatre tonight and tomorrow, November 24 and 25. Actors will be asked to read from the script, with no prepared monologues necessary.

Performances dates are February 20 to March 9, 2014.

Friday, November 22, 2013

What's Coming Up at Community Players in 2014-15

Community Players is the first local theater out of the box with plans for their 2014-15 season. As usual, Players will combine American classic stage plays with big, boffo Broadway musicals to create their season.

The Philadelphia Story, the Philip Barry comedy about the privileged classes enjoying their privileges, created a comeback on stage and on film for Katharine Hepburn, who played Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord. Tracy is set to marry "man of the people" George Kittredge, but temptation in the form of newsman Macauley Connor and her ex, C. K. Dexter Haven, looms large as the wedding nears. Community Players will present The Philadelphia Story as their September 2014 show, with performances September 4-7 and 11-14.

Next up will be Rent, the Broadway musical that transfers La Bohème to Alphabet City in Manhattan in the late 80s. Rent composer Jonathan Larson passed away unexpectedly at the age of 35 just before the show's first off-Broadway preview, but his creation lived on in the hearts of countless fans. This story of young artists trying to live the Bohemian life in the wake of AIDS, drugs and landlords ended up with three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. Rent will open November 6, with performances continuing through the 23rd.

After that, it's back to the American classics. Of Mice and Men, the John Steinbeck drama from 1937, is scheduled for January 15 to 25, 2015. Steinbeck focused on migrant workers Lennie and George, two sad souls looking for a place in the world during the Great Depression. Broderick Crawford and Wallace Ford were the first stage Lennie and George, while Lon Chaney, Jr. and Burgess Meredith were unforgettable in the 1939 film and Steppenwolf Theater's John Malkovich and Gary Sinise brought Of Mice and Men and these two wounded characters back on stage and on film.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a Broadway musical based on a non-musical film, comes to community Players from March 12 to 29, 2015. With music and lyrics by David Yazbeck and a book by Jeffrey Lane, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels tells the tale of two con men plying their trade fleecing rich women on the French Riviera. Freddy and Lawrence are competitors turned partners, but a beautiful mark may just turn the tables on them. Marlon Brando and David Niven were the first actors to play the roles in 1964's Bedtime Story, but Steve Martin and Michael Caine were the ones who started the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels tradition. On Broadway, with musical additions, it was Norbert Leo Butz and John Lithgow.

A less familiar Neil Simon play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, is up in May. It's autobiographical, which you might expect from Simon, but about the part of his life when he worked as a comedy writer for Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows in the 1950s. Caesar and his Show are translated into Max Prince and a weekly comedy show bearing his name, with other real comedy writers like Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart showing up loosely disguised on the cast list. Expect Laughter on the 23rd Floor in performance from May 7 to 17.

Finishing up the season is Annie, that barnburner of a musical about a red-headed orphan that opened on Broadway in 1977 and didn't close till 1983. A new, updated version of Annie is filming in New York right now with Quvenzhané Wallis as the title girl, so there should be plenty of buzz for the original by the time it hits the stage at Community Players in July. There are lots of roles for kids in this one, too, which makes it different from Rent and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which have much more mature themes.

And that is what Community Players is showing for the latter part of 2014 and the first half of 2015. It's a little early to plan ahead, but Rentheads may be doing just that for their beloved show. Players is offering all the details here.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION Returns Tonight at Heartland Theatre

Heartland Theatre's Circle Mirror Transformation, the lovely, luminous little comedy by Annie Baker, finishes up its performance schedule this weekend, with shows tonight, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Pantagraph reviewer Patricia Stiller called the production, directed by Cyndee Brown, "refreshingly honest" as she noted "not caring is not an option" when it comes to the very real folks who populate Circle Mirror Transformation. "We hurt when they hurt, and cheer when they rally," Stiller wrote about the flawed, vulnerable characters portrayed by Julia Besch, Dean Brown, Cristen Monson, Cathy Sutliff and Aaron Thomas.

Besch, Brown, Monson and Thomas are portraying four regular people who take an Adult Drama class from an instructor named Marty, played by Sutliff, at a community center in Shirley, Vermont. Shirley is a fictional town created by Annie Baker and used in three of her plays, but it doesn't seem very different from Bloomington or Normal as seen in Circle Mirror Transformation. For these people, their weekly class functions almost as therapy, as they go through simple acting exercises that expose their dreams as well as their flaws, that reveal their individual personalities as well as forge a group identity. Finding yourself and finding each other is what Circle Mirror Transformation is all about.

Cristen Monson (center) performing an exercise in Circle Mirror Transformation
Baker is one of the hottest playwrights around, with awards and productions at every turn. Circle Mirror Transformation was chosen as one of the top ten plays of 2010 for the Best Plays Theater Yearbook and it became the second-most-performed play of the 2009-10 season. It's a perfect match for Heartland Theatre, both because Heartland's space is inside a community center much like the one in Shirley and because the theater has always been run by people like Marty, people who understand and appreciate the significance of theater education. Managing Artistic Director Mike Dobbins, who passed away in July, was one of those people, director Cyndee Brown is another, and sponsor D. Ann Jones is a third. The Young at Heartland program for senior actors that Jones helped guide for a time uses some of the same exercises you'll see in the play as they build their troupe.

And speaking of those exercises... Due to weather issues (and a decided lack of power during last Sunday's terrible storms), the Sunday performance and discussion afterwards were both canceled. But Cyndee Brown has volunteered to come back after this Sunday's matinee to illuminate the exercises in the play and talk a little about how theater games work. Brown plans this as an interactive experience for audience members who come for the talkback, and you'll want to be there if you've seen the show and had questions about Explosion Tag, When I Go to India or the Circle Mirror Transformation exercise on stage. If you haven't seen the show yet, it's even more imperative to get there for one of these last four performances, before the curtain falls on this beautiful little play that so eloquently demonstrates the sense of community and exploration that Heartland Theatre is all about.

Circle Mirror Transformation continues through Sunday, November 14, at Heartland Theatre in Normal. Performances are scheduled for tonight, tomorrow and Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Sunday afternoon at 2 pm. Click here for reservation information.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Washington/SHG Semifinal Football Game to Air Live to Highlight Relief Effort

The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) and its broadcast partners at the NFHS Network and PlayOn! Sports announced today that Saturday’s IHSA Semifinal Football Playoff game between Washington High School and Sacred Heart-Griffin High School will be broadcast on statewide television, as well as streamed free online at for a national audience.

The contest, scheduled for 1 pm on November 23 at Sacred Heart-Griffin’s campus in Springfield, will be aired live by Comcast SportsNet Chicago, Springfield’s WCIX and WAOE and WYZZ in Peoria. Viewers are encouraged to use the hashtag #TeamIL in social media to help raise awareness.

“This started as an idea to find a location to show the game for the fans in Washington who won’t be able to make it to Springfield,” said PlayOn! Sports President Tim Eichorst. “As we reached out to folks at the various local television stations and CSN Chicago, we found tremendous support and a desire to do something more. It really materialized from there into an event that is bigger than a football game, one that everyone involved hopes will have an impact on those affected around the state. Each partner has made a significant contribution to pull this together so quickly and we thank them for the support in making this unprecedented broadcast happen.”

The community of Washington was devastated by an EF-4 tornado on Sunday that killed one person and leveled nearly 1,000 homes in the town of 15,000. The tornado struck less than 24 hours after the Panther football team had improved to 12-0 on the season and moved within one victory of an appearance in the IHSA Class 5A state championship game (Saturday, November 30 at NIU in DeKalb).

The National Weather Service has confirmed that at least 16 tornadoes struck parts of Illinois on Sunday, resulting in Governor Quinn declaring 13 Illinois counties disaster areas. Saturday’s televised broadcast will include information on how, where and what viewers can donate to help those impacted across Illinois.

“The goal now is provide awareness and relief to all of the affected areas throughout the state,” said IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman. “This storm left a path of destruction from Nashville in southern Illinois to Washington to Coal City and beyond. Washington is an incredibly compelling story, given that they are still playing in the playoffs and suffered so much damage from the storm. We hope to use that attention to not only help Washington, but also all of the other Illinois communities who are reeling from this tragedy.”

Hickman cited the outpouring of support for Washington from many neighboring schools and communities that has already taken place, including from its semifinal opponent. "There has been a tremendous level of support from schools and teams around the state to help those communities impacted by this disaster,” said Hickman. “That speaks to the fiber of the parents, educators, and coaches who understand the importance of being a part of team and assisting others when they need it most.”

Sacred Heart-Griffin has organized several charter busses to take Washington residents to and from Saturday’s game. The school will also feed those fans, feed the Washington football team a pre- and post-game meal and has several other fundraisers and drives associated with the game to help their opponent.

Additionally, the IHSA will be donating $1.00 for each ticket sold at the Washington/SHG game to the American Red Cross’ relief effort for this disaster.

The IHSA is encouraging interested viewers to check their local listings for channel availability. The game will be available on over-the-air (non-cable/dish) television in the Peoria (WAOE and WYZZ) and Springfield (WCIX) markets. CSN Chicago also serves those markets on cable/dish, as well as the rest of the state with the exception of counties bordering St. Louis, Missouri due to professional sports network broadcasting regulations. CSN Chicago is also available nationally with the Comcast Sports upgrade package.

“I sometimes wonder if we sensationalize the role of sports in recovery from tragedies like this,” added Hickman. “Any notion of that was dashed when I heard Washington resident Scott Gundy talk about the Washington High School football team on the Today Show on Monday. Communities develop deep bonds with their teams all over our state, and we hope Saturday’s game will provide the residents or Washington, and any other affected communities, a few hours of temporary reprieve from their rebuilding efforts.”
Other items of note regarding donation opportunities to assist impacted communities:

Individuals interested in helping communities affected by the storms in Illinois have a number of opportunities available. Individuals are encouraged to search the following websites for donation items and locations:
Individuals can also call the following numbers to make monetary donations:
  • American Red Cross at 800-RED-CROSS 
  • United Way of South Central Illinois at 618-242-8000 
  • Salvation Army at 800-SAL-ARMY
The links below provide other additional assistance options by region:
The IHSA press release makes mention of other instances of community outreach in Washington, including the fact that Normal University High School, Bloomington Central Catholic High School and Illinois State University have welcomed the Washington football team to ISU’s Hancock Stadium this week for practices. Those schools also provided meals for the Washington players and coaches. Washington defeated University High School in the IHSA quarterfinals one day before the tornado struck.

The member schools of the Mid-Illini Conference, which includes Washington as well as Canton, Dunlap, East Peoria, Limestone, Metamora, Morton and Pekin, have been actively gathering supplies and donations to help their conference mate. Morton is providing breakfast for the Washington football team this week.

This week’s Bloomington-Normal area Intercity Girls Basketball Tournament, which features Bloomington High School, Normal Community, Normal Community West, Central Catholic and University High School will donate the gate proceeds from all of their games to Washington. They are also collecting donations of money and drinking water that will be taken to the community later this week.

The Chicago Bears, an IHSA partner, will promote awareness for the Washington area by having players and coaches wear Washington t-shirts throughout events during the week. Several Bears players were in the Coal City/Diamond area, which was stuck by an EF-2 tornado, on Tuesday to create awareness and help clean-up.

Broadcast notes: WEEK’s Lee Hall will call play-by-play on the game, former Kansas City Chief James “Boomer” Grigsby (Canton High School/Illinois State University) will provide analysis and Comcast SportsNet Chicago’s Jen Lada will serve as the sideline reporter.

Also note that the broadcast of the Washington/SHG semifinal football game will alter the rebroadcast times for the IHSA Girls Volleyball State Finals. CSN Chicago schedule will now broadcast the IHSA Class 5A Football Semifinal between Washington and Sacred Heart-Griffin live at 1 pm on Saturday, followed by IHSA State Volleyball Class 1A at 3:30 pm, Class 2A at 4:45 pm Class 3A at 7 pm, and Class 4A at 8:15 pm.

Auditions Coming Up for ANNE FRANK at Community Players

Community Players will hold auditions for their production of The Diary of Anne Frank, slated for performances in January 2014. Director Opal Virtue is using the newest version of the script, updated by Wendy Kesselman in 1997 to combine the 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning stageplay written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett with more recently discovered pieces of Anne Franks' writing as well as other accounts from Holocaust survivors. The 1959 movie also called The Diary of Anne Frank was also based on the Goodrich-Hackett stageplay, which was itself taken from The Diary of a Young Girl, the book version of young Anne Frank's journals about her time in hiding in an Amsterdam attic during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands from 1942 to 1944.

There was some controversy about the Kesselman adaptation and how it changed a work that had come to be enshrined in the public memory, but there was controversy all the way back to The Diary of a Young Girl, in which Anne's father Otto Frank agreed to leave out anything considered indelicate or provocative, including his daughter's musing on sex as well as her less-than-flattering opinions about some of the other people in the attic. Different versions have been published over the years to include analysis and to restore material that paints a more complete picture of Anne.

The Diary of Anne Frank has roles for five women and five men, including Anne, her parents and her older sister; three members of the Van Daan family and another man who are also in hiding in the attic; and Miep and Mr. Kraler, the people who are helping them and providing a slim connection to the world outside their hiding place.

Auditions will be held November 25 and 26 at 7 pm, with performances set for January 17-19 and 23-26, 2014. For more information, click here or here.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Catch HAY FEVER This Week at IWU

Achoo! I don't recall anyone sneezing in Noel Coward's Hay Fever, although it would be in character if it were the biggest, most over-the-top sneeze ever. Hay Fever, which first played in London in 1925, is one of those blithe and witty comedies about crazy theatrical people who pull a few unsuspecting "normal" people (i.e., not theatre people) into their orbit and the hijinks that ensue when they do. It's sort of The Royal Family by way of Private Lives.

This one involves Judith Bliss, grande dame of the English stage, and her husband, David, a novelist, who decide to spend a weekend at their country home, with their equally flaky children, Simon and Sorel, in tow. Each of them has asked along a potential romantic partner, but once their guests are there, the Blisses pull all sorts of parlor games and silly tricks that baffle the newcomers. There are misunderstandings when flowery dialogue from one of Judith's hit shows is inserted into real conversations, feigned mad passion, emotional outbursts and all sorts of tempests in teapots. The Blisses are charming, eccentric and self-indulgent, with a sort of 1920s "tennis, anyone?" elegance along with their madcap antics.

Hay Fever may not be revived as often as Private Lives or Blithe Spirit, but it has enjoyed four Broadway productions since it opened in 1925 with Laura Hope Crews (Aunt Pittypat in Gone with the Wind) as Judith Bliss and multiple British productions in London and the provinces. Over the years, actresses as different as Shirley Booth, Constance Collier, Judi Dench, Lindsay Duncan, Edith Evans, Rosemary Harris and Diana Rigg have all played Judith, while Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen and Sam Waterston have done Simon, and Maggie Smith has played both Myra and Jackie, the female guests in the party.

Illinois Wesleyan professor Nancy Loitz directs the McPherson Theatre production of Hay Fever that opens tomorrow, with Kate Fitzgerald as Judith, Ian Scarlato as David, Abby Dryden and Will Henke as Sorel and Simon, Joey Chu, Jenna Haimes, Forrest Loeffler and Priscilla Moy as the confused guests who wander into the Bliss household, and Alexa Eldridge as the family housekeeper. Debra Madans completes the cast as an understudy.

IWU's production begins Tuesday November 19 and continues through Saturday November 23, with performances at 8 pm each night. There will also be a Sunday matinee at 2 pm on the 24th. For ticket information, you can click here for the box office site, visit the the School of Theatre Arts Facebook page, or call the box office directly at 309-556-3232.

Friday, November 15, 2013

SPAMALOT Looks on the Bright Side at Community Players

When the Monty Python musical Spamalot began its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago back in late 2004, everyone was curious whether it would look more like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the irreverent movie it was "lovingly ripped off from," or whether it would be more like a Broadway musical. Would it have the surreal insouciance of the former or the mainstream appeal of the latter? Would it be geared to the absurdist, snarky, anti-establishment Monty Python fans or the more traditional Broadway musical types who would plunk down $100 for Phantom or Les Miz?

Eric Idle, the part of Monty Python who created Spamalot, went for both at the same time. Idle attempted to bridge the gap between the two groups, pulling out some of the best bits of Holy Grail, like substituting coconut shells for horses, the Black Knight who fights on as he loses limbs, Brave Sir Robin who isn't brave at all, the French Taunter whose insults include "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!" and even Dennis, the anarcho-syndicalist ditch-digger, and setting them right next to pieces of Broadway parody that wouldn't have been out of place in The Producers. In fact, I think a similar Fiddler on the Roof send-up appears in The Producers. There's also a big inspirational number called "Find Your Grail" reminiscent of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," and a meta-piece in 'The Diva's Lament," wherein the leading lady wonders why she isn't getting more to do. Just for an added portion of Python, we get "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," a song from the Life of Brian movie.

For me, the Python material beats the Broadway parody with one giant foot tied behind its back. Still, it's nice for everybody to get something to laugh at, even if "nice" isn't something I generally associate with Monty Python.

For Community Players, Spamalot gets plenty of laughs. Director Marcia Weiss has a game cast, full of actors and singers who are clearly enjoying the heck out of themselves, with John Bowen (Sir Lancelot), Joe Culpepper (Not Dead Fred), Aimee Kerber (Patsy), Dave Krostal (The French Taunter and several other roles), Austin Travis (Sir Robin), Alan Wilson (Galahad's mother) and especially Sharon Russell, who sparkles all over the place as the Lady of the Lake, as standouts. Russell is sensational on "The Song That Goes Like This" and "The Diva's Lament," and she raises the level of every scene she's in. If you know any of those people, you are likely to be rolling in the aisles when you see what they're getting up to in Spamalot.

Costume designers Opal Virtue and Sherry Bradshaw make the various knights and nuts look nifty, while Carol Plotkin and Dorothy Gordish add a whole range of cool props. Whether they borrowed, bought or built the costumes, the killer rabbit and the Grail, it all looks great on stage.

Spamalot continues at Community Players through November 24. For ticket information, click here.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

CIRCLE MIRROR Is Back, Including a Talkback Post-Show on Sunday

Heartland Theatre's production of Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation returns to the stage tonight with a 7:30 pm performance, followed by Friday and Saturday evening performances and a Sunday matinee at 2 pm. The Sunday show will be followed by a talkback with director Cyndee Brown, as Brown steps in front of the curtain to discuss one of the central issues in Baker's sweet, sad, funny play -- the transformative power of theater and theater classes.

Circle Mirror Transformation involves an "adult drama" class at a community center in Vermont, where four very different students -- a high school girl who wants to get a jump on the lead in West Side Story, a socially inept carpenter coming off a bad divorce, an actress from New York coming off a bad relationship of her own, and the teacher's husband, only there to fill out the class -- go through a series of theater games with their instructor, a woman named Marty who teaches jewelry and pottery classes, too. Baker has constructed the play to reveal who they are slowly and gently, through the seemingly goofy exercises they play.

Cristen Monson (center) offers a monologue in Circle Mirror Transformation
Non-theater people may wonder about those exercises, echoing "I don't get what the point is" along with Lauren, the teenager, who demands to know if they are ever going to do any acting. Theater people, on the other hand, may be cringing as they remember endless hours spent lying on the floor in community centers and empty dance studios, counting out loud, playing "When I Go to California" or explosion tag, just like the characters. Both groups should benefit from the talkback session, where Cyndee Brown will lead a discussion of who Annie Baker is and why she wrote her play this way, with maybe even a demonstration of a game or two, if we're lucky.

Whether you choose to stick around for the discussion or not, you'll definitely want to see Circle Mirror Transformation, one of the most popular plays of the past few years, while it's still available in Bloomington-Normal. Its characters, so subtly drawn, so vulnerable, so flawed, are what makes it stand out in my mind.

For Heartland, Cathy Sutliff plays Marty, the instructor leading her students into discovery and self-exploration, while Dean Brown plays her congenial husband, James; Cristen Monson takes on Theresa, who is very good at a lot of things but very bad at relationships; Aaron J. Thomas as Schultz, the awkward carpenter; and Julia Besch as Lauren, the smart and insightful teen in their midst.

You can find out more about the play here, or proceed directly to show times or reservation information. Circle Mirror Transformation continues at Heartland Theatre through November 24.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Actors Theatre of Louisville Announces 2014 HUMANA FESTIVAL Slate of Plays

Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays, the one that's been setting the standard for new play festivals since 1976, has announced the six full-length shows that will be on the schedule in Spring 2014. The four weekends that make up Humana Festival 2014 begin March 14 and end April 6, with a different array of choices every weekend, tailored to suit college students and faculty (College Days), theater critics, directors, producers and agents (Industry Professionals), hometown fans in Louisville (Locals Pass) and theater fans in general (New Play Getaways). One of the most amazing things about the Humana Festival is how good Actors Theatre personnel are at juggling all those different visitors as they pass from one show to the next. There are four theater spaces inside Actors Theatre, plus they've explored cars, t-shirts, phones, museums, and a local elementary school as performance spaces over the years.

This year, the playwrights represented in the festival lineup will tackle religion, a distinctively American brand of folklore, finding adulthood, the possibility of hope in the wake of tragedy, and a sort of retrospective of Humana Festivals past.

That last choice is called Remix 38, and it will serve two functions. First, the five commissioned playwrights -- Jackie Sibbles Drury, Basil Kreimendahl, Idris Goodwin, Justin Kuritzkes and Amelia Roper -- will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Actors Theatre through their work, picking up on the history of the Humana Festival in short pieces designed to "pay playful homage to iconic plays from past Humana Festivals." Anybody want to guess which plays will show up in this "playful homage"?

You have to think the three Humana plays that won the Pulitzer Prize deserve mention. Those three are D.L. Coburn's The Gin Game, Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart and Donald Margulies' Dinner with Friends. Other notable plays from Humana Fests Past I'd expect to see referenced include Keely and Du and Talking With... by Jane Martin, Agnes of God by John Pielmeier, A Piece of My Heart by Shirley Lauro, Big Love by Charles Mee, After Ashley and Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo, Omnium-Gatherum by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros and Theresa Rebeck, Marisol by José Rivera, and TAPE by Stephen Belber. Since Jane Martin is a pseudonym widely believed to belong to former Humana Festival Artistic Director Jon Jory, and pretty much everything "Martin" wrote ended up at the Festival, I have a feeling there might be an overview of sorts of the "Jane Martin" oeuvre from 1981's Twirlers to Listeners in 2006.

Remix 38 will also function as the annual showcase for Actors Theatre's Apprentice/Intern program, with Actors Theatre's corps of apprentice actors taking on all the roles. That includes Illinois State University grad Devon Nimerfroh, who appeared in plays like Picnic and Mother Courage while at ISU and in several roles in last summer's 10-Minute Play Festival at Heartland Theatre.

American legend John Henry on a stamp
Anne Bogart will be back at Humana Fest in 2014, this time with Steel Hammer, a piece performed and created by Bogart's SITI Company. Julia Wolfe, of the musical group Bang on a Can, did the music and lyrics for this exploration of the legend of John Henry, the railroad man with a hammer who raced against a steam-powered drill in a contest of steel-driving strength and speed. The script for this piece has been provided by playwrights Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux and Regina Taylor.

Lucas Hnath
Also back: Lucas Hnath, whose short play nightnight was one of my favorites last year. Hnath set his sights on the intersection of death and money in Death Tax, a Humana entry in 2012 that got a lot of notice as well as a nomination for the Steinberg New Play Award. This time, he'll look at the intersetcion of religion and money in The Christians, about a pastor at a megachurch who changes his mind about what's important.

Jordan Harrison
Jordan Harrison is another familiar name; his time-warped Maple and Vine was a hit at the Humana Festival in 2011, while full-length plays Act a Lady (2006) and Kid-Simple (2004) and a short play called Fit for Feet (2003) kept audiences talking in previous years. Harrison is back this time with something called The Grown-Up, which Actors Theatre calls "a time-bending, sad, funny adventure about how to survive growing up."

Dorothy Fortenberry
Dorothy Fortenberry's Partners also involves the whole growing up thing, as it examines what happens to a pair of BFFs when money and relationships and what it really means to be an adult get in the way. Fortenberry is a new name to me, but she is a writer for the television show The 100 on the CW network, winner of the 2011 Helen Merrill Award for Emerging Playwrights, and a two-time finalist for the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference.

Kimber Lee
The last full-length play on the schedule, Kimber Lee's brownsville song (b-side for tray), looks at how a family tries to cope when a boy who hasn't had a chance to grow up yet is taken from them. Tray is killed in the kind of stupid, senseless violence we see in the headlines every day. Lee's "scattered rhythms" take Tray's family before and after the tragedy to show how they struggle to find hope.

For all the details on Humana Festival 2014, keep an eye on Actors Theatre of Louisville. Ticket packages go on sale November 12 (yes, that's tomorrow) while single tickets will be offered starting the 14th.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

ISU Brings Out the Pretty Side of DANCING AT LUGHNASA

I've been reviewing theater for a very long time. I started writing for the Champaign News-Gazette in 1989, and at the beginning, my process was a bit like Jed Leland's in Citizen Kane, returning to the newsroom immediately after the performance to type up my thoughts. Without the manual typerwiter or the bottle of Scotch, of course.

I quickly discovered that my opinions were more fully formed if I let the performance sit overnight, just resting there till morning. I would wake up clearer and more focused on what I thought. And that's mostly been the way I've operated ever since. I let it sit. And then I can set out my opinion in a more reasoned, reflective manner.

I saw Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa at Illinois State University's Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, November 1. That's more than a week that I've let this one sit, and I have to admit, I'm still not exactly sure how to approach this production. Hmmm...

First, let's be clear that this was not your standard proscenium staging in the Center for the Performing Arts. Director Lori Adams chose to set the action of the play on a side portion of the CPA stage, bringing the audience onto the stage with the actors, seated on folding chairs arranged on risers, with some of the "grass" from the set extending into corners and pathways through the seating area. We entered from the side hallway and never went near the actual seats in the auditorium. I am generally all for environmental staging, bringing us closer to the drama, and Jen Kazmierczak's scenic design is certainly pretty and charming, carving out a niche within the larger space of the Center for the Performing Arts with a warm little cottage that represents the home of the Mundy sisters and an overreaching tree with a beautiful blue sky in the background.

Likewise, Lauren Lowell's costume design is pretty, with a flouncy embroidered skirt here, an exquisite lace apron there, and an adorable pair of Mary Janes with red, gathered straps that my mother would've killed for when she was a teen in the late 30s.

The set and the costumes make for a lovely, idyllic tableau. It might also be an appropriate tableau for a memory play, one in which our adult narrator, Michael, steps back in time to conjure up the world of his mother and her sisters as he remembers them in 1936. But Michael is not a sentimental narrator. He knows full well -- and he tells us -- that the Mundy household was teetering on the edge of poverty at this precise moment. His memories include shoes with thin, much-mended soles and missing laces, and a dinner with three eggs stretched to make a meal for eight people.

In performance, this Dancing at Lughnasa is sweet and languid and almost like a fairytale. That makes for an interesting choice, if not necessarily the most dramatic choice, or the one most connected to the stark financial reality the sisters face. Yes, Dancing at Lughnasa is a play about family. But it's also about poverty, about the lack of options for women in Depression-era Ireland, about the difficulty of finding a way to keep a family together in a place where customs, rules and a hugely repressive church conspire against them. That's why their dance is such a revelation, because it breaks through the grim reality of their lives for one joyous, life-affirming moment. It should shatter the pervasive oppression. But we're missing the oppression here.

Among the cast, Fiona Stephens and Jaimie Taylor stand out as sisters Kate and Maggie. Kate is the most serious and responsible sister, and Stephens does an excellent job of giving her enough pride and enough backbone as well as a sense of underlying despair. She's the one who feels the burden.

In contrast, Taylor's Maggie is the family jokester, the one brimming over with life, the one who livens things up for her sisters and for the audience. Taylor is a breath of fresh air in the role.

Dancing at Lughnasa is a beautiful play, and this is certainly a beautiful production. It's so pretty to look at that you want to love it. But I think the play is deeper than this.

By Brian Friel

The School of Theatre and Dance at Illinois State University
Center for the Performing Arts

Director: Lori Adams
Scenic Designer: Jen Kaczmierczak
Costume Designer: Lauren Lowell
Hair and Makeup Designer: Narissa Tovey
Lighting Designer: Caisa Sanburg
Sound Designer: Glenn Wilson
Choreographer: Duane Boutté
Dialect Director: Connie de Veer

Stage Manager: Matthew T. Black

Cast: Robert Michael Johnson, Fiona Stephens, Jaimie Taylor, Faith Servant, Natalie Blackman, Elsa Torner, Ronald Roman, Arif Yampolsky.

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

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Illinois Shakes Fest Brings Sonnets Within Range of High Schoolers

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival has begun another unique project, this time involving high school students and Shakespeare's sonnets. Poetry slams for high school kids have been around for awhile, bringing self-expression through rhyme to a wide array of people who might otherwise not consider themselves poets.

But this particular competition isn't about writing poetry. It's about connecting Shakespeare to kids through the sonnets by way of a competition structured something like the familiar spelling bee. Students from high schools in the Bloomington-Normal area will memorize and perform sonnets from the Shakespeare canon in front of spectators and a three-judge panel. Personnel -- what you might call "coaches" -- from the Illinois Shakespeare Festival have been working with these performers to get at what's really happening in the sonnets they've chosen, and the students have already competed at their own schools before advancing to this area-wide event. Just like a spelling bee!

So what is a sonnet? It's a poem of 14 lines with a specific rhyme scheme and structure. Shakespeare wrote 154 of them; their structure consists of three quatrains and a couplet, and the rhyme scheme is abab, cdcd, efef, gg. (I am certainly no expert on sonnets, so I hope someone will jump in and correct me if I haven't got that right. Local poet Kathleen Kirk has written sonnets as well as broken sonnets, so let's hope she's reading this and can explicate.) At any rate, it will be interesting to see which of Shakespeare's sonnets, his musings on love, passion and death, high school students have chosen.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read...

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun...

We'll all find out which sonnets appeal to the younger demographic on Wednesday, November 20 at 7 pm at Illinois Wesleyan's Hansen Center. No reservations are necessary and entrance is completely free.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation was a sensation during and after its run at Playwrights Horizon in 2009, called "the kind of unheralded gem that sends people into the streets babbling and bright-eyed with the desire to spread the word" as well as "absorbing, unblinking and sharply funny" by the New York Times.

Baker sketches out her characters, opening them like flowers, through the device of six weeks of "adult drama" classes at a small community center in Vermont. We only see these five people -- teacher Marty; her seemingly good-natured husband James; Theresa the "real" actress from New York; recently divorced Schultz, a carpenter who is somewhat inept socially; and Lauren, a high-school student who just may be wiser than the adults around her -- only in the studio where they take their class, in conversation here and there, and in the exercises they take on under Marty's direction. Baker's dialogue often sounds fragmented and broken, just like real people talk, often unassuming, as if nothing much is really being said. But there's a lot there if you listen carefully and let Baker's unique rhythms and tone weave their spell, a lot about how difficult it is to bridge the gaps between and among people, how inevitable it is to change, how complicated it is to be flawed and vulnerable and yet to keep trying to connect, anyway.

Theresa (Cristen Monson, top) reveals secrets to fellow acting students
What's beautiful about the script is how all of that unfolds right before your eyes in small moments. Some of those moments are funny, some are awkward (Baker loves awkward) and some are heartbreaking. If you let yourself fall into the play, you'll find it packs quite an emotional punch by the end.

For Heartland Theatre, Cyndee Brown directs this award-winning play, one that was chosen for the 2010 Best Plays Yearbook and hit the top of the lists of the most-produced plays in America in 2010. Brown is herself a theatre educator, so she understands what it is to see students transformed and enlightened by the "theatre games" they play. Brown's cast includes Cathy Sutliff, most recently seen at Heartland as a no-nonsense police officer in Superior Donuts, as Marty; Dean Brown, who played artist Mark Rothko in Red as James; Cristen Monson, fresh off the role of Desiree in Prairie Fire's A Little Night Music, as Theresa; Aaron J. Thomas, seen in two of Heartland's 10-Minute Plays last summer, as Schultz; and ISU student Julia Besch, who appeared in J.B. in Westhoff Theatre, as Lauren. It's a strong cast, with strong and sure direction, in a play that very much suits Heartland Theatre, which is itself located inside a community center.

There are a lot of entertainment options this week, with a big musical, two of the best plays of the 90s (and maybe the 20th century) and a nationally known humorist on stage, but it would be a major mistake for theatre lovers to overlook Annie Baker's "lovely, luminous" Circle Mirror Transformation at Heartland. This is a play you have to make room for.

For more information on the Heartland production, click here, or you may choose to proceed directly to showtimes or reservation info.

Circle Mirror Transformation opens with a Pay-What-You-Can Preview tomorrow at 7:30 pm, followed by 7:30 performances on November 8-9, 14-16 and 21-23, with Sunday matinees at 2 pm on the 17th and 24th. Note that an after-play discussion will be offered on November 17, with director Cyndee Brown giving the backstage scoop on the show as well as taking questions.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

GEORGE and GOOD PEOPLE Score at Chicago's Joseph Jefferson Awards

Chicago's Joseph Jefferson Awards for Equity productions were handed out last night, with Steppenwolf's production of David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's Sunday in the Park with George taking home the big awards.

I saw that Sunday, and it was a beautiful and emotional experience. I chose to end my end-of-the-year post with it, as a matter of fact. Jeff voters chose this Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine show as the best musical of the year in the "large production" category, and also honored director Gary Griffin. Although stars Jason Danieley and Carmen Cusack (seen at right) were nominated, the awards for best actor and actress in a musical went to Bill Larkin for his performance as Edward Kleban in A Class Act at Porchlight and Christine Sherrill in Sunset Boulevard at Drury Lane. A Class Act and Porchlight also won the "midsize" musical award, with Callie Johnson's performance in Pal Joey at Marriott honored as best cameo and Alexis J. Rogers' work in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill at Porchlight named best solo performance.

Andre De Shields' star turn in the Goodman's Jungle Book won in the supporting actor in a musical category, while Bethany Thomas was named best supporting actress in a musical for South Pacific at the Marriott Theatre.

Steppenwolf's Good People took top honors as the best play by a big theatre, but William Brown, who directed The Liar for Writers Theatre, was named best director of a play. Still, Good People star Mariann Mayberry, who also happens to be an alum of Illinois Wesleyan University, was honored as best actress for her terrific work as a blue collar Boston woman whose life has hits the skids. And Michael Shannon, whose career has blown up big-time, won best actor in a play for Sam Shepard's Simpatico at Red Orchid Theatre, his stomping grounds before Hollywood and Broadway came calling.

Mariann Mayberry and Keith Kupferer in Good People
Awards in the supporting categories for plays went to Raymond Fox for Blood and Gifts at TimeLine and Elizabeth Ledo for Tartuffe at Court Theatre. TimeLine also picked up the best "midsize" play award for its production of Moises Kaufman's 33 Variations.

The Second City Guide to the Opera, a collaboration between Second City and the Lyric Opera, was named best revue, with director Billy Bungeroth also honored. Best actor in a revue went to David M. Lutken, who played Woody Guthrie in Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie, a revue at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.

Best ensemble was the cast of Othello: The Remix at Chicago Shakes, and best new work was shared by Luis Alfaro, for Mojada at Victory Gardens, and Rajiv Joseph, for The Lake Effect at Silk Road Rising.

You can see all the complete list of nominations and winners here, including all the technical awards and the best choreography honor, which went to Linda Fortunato, choreographer of 42nd Street at Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana. Fortunato's father is Jerry Parsons, longtime teacher and coach at Normal U-High, and her mother is Marcy Parsons, who is involved with Illinois Voices Theatre and could be found again volunteering her services at the Discovery Walk at Evergreen Cemetery last month.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Angels in America: PERESTROIKA at ISU Starting Thursday

When the first half of Tony Kushner's Angels in America opus, the Millennium Approaches half, was unveiled to audiences in 1992 (in Los Angeles) and 1993 (on Broadway), audiences were stunned. The sweeping nature of the play, covering the past, the present, the future, the nature of change and staying the same, as well as all kinds of issues related to AIDS, homosexuality, Mormons, Jews, Marxism, Ronald Reagan Republicans, Roy Cohn and Joe McCarthy, Ethel Rosenberg, and of course, angels, kept people on the edge of their seats for the entire three hours it took to tell the first half of Kushner's story.

At the end of Millennium Approaches, by the time the character of Prior Walter utters the memorable line, "Very Stephen Spielberg" when an angel crashes through his ceiling, audiences were also desperate to find out what happened to WASPy Prior, who had been diagnosed with AIDS; Louis, the conflicted Jewish boyfriend who had deserted Prior when he became ill; Belize, a friend of Prior's who had been a drag queen but was now a nurse; a closeted Mormon Republican named Joe Pitt who was having trouble suppressing the fact that he was gay; Joe's unhappy wife, pill-popping Harper; Joe's hard-edged mother, Hannah, who came from Salt Lake City to find him; and Roy Cohn, the epitome of evil, a character based on the real-life lawyer and Washington power broker who'd sent the Rosenbergs to the chair and sat at the right hand of Senator Joe McCarthy.

Kushner's vision was huge, funny, fantastic, sad and true, all at once, what with that Angel crashing through the ceiling, a "threshold of revelation" where two strangers' reality overlapped in their dreams; a flaming Hebrew letter that appeared out of nowhere in a hospital room, and an imaginary travel agent named Mr. Lies who took one of the characters to Antarctica.

Angels in America Part II: Perestroika appeared on Broadway about six months after Millennium Approaches, and Kushner was still writing it, trimming it, polishing it till the last minute. This one was even bigger, coming in at four hours. Yes, that's right -- if you wanted the whole Angels story, back-to-back, it was going to take you seven hours. And the scope got even bigger, with Heaven and Hell and a whole phalanx of Angels now in the mix.

It's Perestroika that David Ian Lee is directing for Illinois State University in the intimate space at Centennial West 207, with performances scheduled for November 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16. Will it run four hours? Will we see Roy Cohn in Hell? Will Prior visit Heaven and see Louis's grandmother? Those are some of the variables involved in Tony Kushner's different revisions, along with whether Joe Pitt will go FFN when he strips off his Mormon temple garments, whether there will be projections to tell us the titles of the individual sections of the play, what kind of music or underscoring will be used, and how this production envisions the Perestroika landscape. Will it be a police-taped post-Apocalyptic mess? Look like the basement of the Smithsonian? Or like a giant shipwreck? I've seen all three, as well as one with a big ol' Bethesda Fountain front and center throughout the play and one that sent us to a giant disco inferno.

I have to think Lee's Perestroika will be simply staged, just given the venue. There's no room for rafters full of abandoned furniture or a giant ship's mast and sails crashed on the stage. But that is the beauty of Angels in America. It can be reshaped and reimagined and still come off just as stunning. It's an amazing piece of work.

For ISU, Nick Spindler will play Prior Walter, with Ross Kugman as Louis Ironson, Bryson Thomas as Belize, David Fisch as Joe Pitt, Cydney Moody as Harper Pitt, Kelsey Bunner as Hannah Pitt, Joe Faifer as Roy Cohn, and Emma Dreher as the Angel. Most of them will play other roles, as well, to fill in a character roster that includes the World's Oldest Living Bolshevik, mannequins in a tableau at the Mormon Visitors Center, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. This is complex, difficult work for college-age actors, but also the kind of material they won't get a chance to work with very often.

If you're an actor and you get a chance to take a waltz with Angels in America, no matter when or where, I'm thinking you take it.

Friday, November 1, 2013

IWU's TREASURE Brings History Alive (Including Its Seamy Underbelly)

Tim Slover's Treasure, in performance through Saturday at Illinois Wesleyan University's E. Melba Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre, illustrates exactly why history matters. It may seem like dusty data from crumbling pages, but the issues, the choices, the drama is oh-so-very current as it unfolds.

Treasure is all about Alexander Hamilton, a familiar name from the early days of the United States of America, from the time when a new nation was finding its way and forging a path for its future. Who would decide what America would be? Would it be Federalists like Hamilton who wanted a strong central government based on a national bank and national debt, strong manufacturing and tariffs? Or Jeffersonians, who wanted power to remain in the South with its rural and plantation-based economy? In the play, Hamilton tells us that his primary concern is money, as the first Secretary of the Treasury in American history, as well as someone who himself came from nothing but traded on his intelligence and insight to carve out a position at the top of the heap in American politics.

Hamilton wants opportunity for everyone through manufacturing, so that hard work and brain power will mean more than family name or inherited wealth.

North vs. South, Industrialists vs. Landowners, Bootstraps vs. Inheritance, National power vs. State's Rights, the 1% vs. the 99%... It couldn't be more current, could it? And while the arguments about who is right and who is wrong to lead America may form the crux of the debate, what turns everything upside-down is not political ideals, but personal weakness. Like so many other politicians, Hamilton thought his personal life -- and marital infidelity -- couldn't touch his political reputation. And he was very, very wrong.

Treasure works as a piece of dramatic literature because Slover was careful to build the tension and to weave the larger issues into Hamilton's personal story. Director Michael Cotey gives his young cast -- three sophomores, a junior and two seniors in Illinois Wesleyan's School of Theatre Arts -- the tools to home in on the story, to communicate the complicated theories of wealth and governance by focusing on the characters and their conflict instead. Treasure is staged in the round inside the Kirkpatrick Lab Theatre, a tricky proposition in any space, but here it serves to keep the action right in front of you.

Zachery Wagner has the profile for Hamilton, a handsome man as you can tell from your ten-dollar bills, and he also does well with the hard intelligence that bound Hamilton to his principles even as it blinded him to his own failings. He is well-matched by Elizabeth Albers as Betsy Hamilton, his loyal wife, who has spirit and a mind of her own. When push comes to shove and tempers fly inside the Hamilton marriage, Wagner and Albers do their best work.

On the political side of the equation, Elliott Plowman is an audience favorite as Frederick Muhlenberg, the Lutheran pastor who was the first Speaker of the House of Representatives and someone who found himself on both sides of the Congressional conflict, here offered for comic relief,  and Steven Czajkowski is a little scary as future president James Monroe, the villain of the piece, who is willing to lie, cheat and manipulate muckrakers to get what he wants, which is keeping all the nation's wealth in the hands of a privileged few.

The other villains are more low-rent, with Nick Giambrone as a thug named James Reynolds who isn't afraid to get his hands dirty, and Anna Sciaccotta as his wife, Maria, who looks sweet and pitiful, but plays both sides of the game extremely well. Playing the bait in a blackmail trap, Sciaccotta negotiates the turns in Maria's motives nicely.

Sydney Achler's scenic design is simple -- a rug or two, a desk, a chair -- but effective, and Laura Gisondi's lighting design enhances the mood and shifts scenes appropriately.

I hope today's students who know nothing of Colonial America, who think the 21st Century Tea Party and state's rights demagogues either sprang up out of nowhere or reflect the beliefs of our Founding Fathers, will pay attention to what's really happening underneath the sex scandal in Treasure, where ambition, greed, carelessness, righteousness, honor, betrayal and potential (the words in Cotey's director's note) and a fight for America's future lie.

By Tim Slover

E. Melba Johnson Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre
Illinois Wesleyan University

Director: Michael Cotey
Scenic Designer: Sydney Achler
Costume Designers: Kelsey VonderHaar
Lighting Designer: Laura Gisondi
Sound Designer: Michael Cotey

Cast: Zachery Wagner, Elizabeth Albers, Elliott Plowman, Nick Giambrone, Anna Sciaccotta and Steven Czajkowski.

Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes including one 15-minute intermission

Remaining performances: November 1 and 2 at 8 pm

For reservation information, click here.

Look Out! November Crashes into Theaters with Every Possible Option

Time to binge on the last of the Halloween candy and toss the pumpkins away. November is here!

Although it's easy to get fussy about November as the days get shorter and the weather takes on a certain chill, there's also a lot to keep you occupied and away from sad songs like "November Rain," "November Blue," and the one where November has tied Tom Waits to an old dead tree. Take a deep breath, put away the November songs, and jump into...Thanksgiving! Pie! Lots and lots of pie!

As well as dancing Irish sisters, David Sedaris, a crazy acting class at Heartland, Monty Python at Community Players, Angels descending from on high, and Noel Coward at IWU...

And founding father Alexander Hamilton, he of the ten-dollar bill, on stage at Illinois Wesleyan's E. Melba Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre. In Tim Slover's Treasure, directed by Michael Cotey, Hamilton is caught in a web of ambition, greed, carelessness, righteousness, honor and betrayal. What happens when a brilliant man with the country's best interests at heart finds himself the victim of his own baser instincts? Politics as usual, that's what. You'll find Treasure's themes of individualism vs. federalism and entrenched wealth vs. opportunity very, very current. Treasure has only two more performances, tonight and tomorrow at 8 pm.

Meanwhile, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of yesteryear appear at the Art Theater Co-op in Champaign. What's not to love about turtles who act like human teenagers, trained by a sewer rat to fight crime? They were all the rage in comic books and cartoons of the 80s, and they got a bunch of different movies, including the one from 1990 being screened at the Art. Not only is the Art offering this mutant classic movie on November 1, 2, 3 and 7, but they're also selling pizza at the Friday and Saturday shows. Cowabunga!

Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel's evocative memory play about an Irish family in the 1930s, opens tonight at Illinois State University's Center for the Performing Arts. ISU professor Lori Adams directs this sweet, sad play about the Mundy sisters, played by and Natalie Blackman, Faith Servant, Fiona Stephens, Jaimie Taylor and Elsa Torner, with Arif Yampolsky as their brother Jack, and Robert Johnson as our narrator, who steps back into his childhood to tell this story.

University of Illinois professor Henson Keys appears the aging magician Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest, which continues through November 3 at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana. Robert G. Anderson directs this very different take on the The Tempest, which focuses on Prospero's exploitation of the island on which he has found himself marooned, bringing in "the ecological implications of theatre making while working to implement sustainable practices." This production has been presented in association with the Department of Landscape Architecture and the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois.

David Sedaris brings his brand of dry wit and wry humor to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts on November 6, including readings from "Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls," his newest collection of essays, and a book signing. The next night, the BCPA hosts Dr. John, that master of voodoo-meets-R&B-meets-funktastic-piano who wrote "Right Place Wrong Time," won six Grammies, and made the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. That's a very interesting one-two punch for November 6 and 7.

Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, a luminous and lovely play about four very different people who take an Adult Drama class at a small community center in Vermont, opens with a special pay-what-you-can preview on Thursday, November 7. Illinois State University professor Cyndee Brown directs Circle Mirror for Heartland with a cast that includes Cathy Sutliff as Marty, the teacher of the class, and Julia Besch, Dean Brown, Cristen Monson and Aaron Thomas as her students. You will see hula hooping, counting, the personification of trees, confessions and, yes, transformation on stage before you, with performances November 7-9, 14-17 and 21-24. Check out showtimes here or reservation information here.

Community Players opens Monty Python's Spamalot, the stage musical lovingly ripped off from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, on their stage with a preview on November 7 and regular performances November 8-10, 14-17 and 21-24. Chris Terven leads the cast as King Arthur, with John Bowen as Sir Lancelot, Spencer Powell as Sir Galahad, Charles Boudreaux as Sir Bedevere and Sharon Russell as The Lady of the Lake. Marcia Weiss directs this epic farce, which manages to pack in all the familiar Python bits like the French taunter and the Knight of Ni (both played by Dave Krostal) as well as a lot of spoofing at the expense of the Great White Way. Click here for all the details about Community Players' production.

And the theatrical offerings on that very popular weekend are not over yet! MFA director David Ian Lee brings part II, the Perestroika half of Tony Kushner's masterpiece Angels in America, to Centennial West 207 that very same weekend. This "gay fantasia on national themes" looks at America in the 80s, when the AIDS crisis was just beginning, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, evil lawyer Roy Cohn was straddling the former and the latter, and a new century was about to crack wide open. Both Millennium Approaches and Perestroika were produced in ISU's Westhoff Theatre (the old Westhoff Theatre), with Patrick O'Gara directing the shows as part of the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 seasons. I have to think Lee will have a different take than O'Gara did, and it will be intriguing to see Perestroika by itself. I've seen Millennium as a stand-alone before (at the University of Illinois) and I had to wait a year between Millennium and Perestroika on Broadway, but otherwise... I've always seen them performed together. This will not be my first black box Angels, however. The Station Theater in Urbana did a bang-up job with both pieces, under the direction of Steven M. Keen, way back in 1996.

If you thought that was all the theater that could possibly open on November 7, you would be wrong. Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris's take on Lorraine Hansberry's classic A Raisin in the Sun, opens in the Studio Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois that very same weekend. Clybourne Park has emerged as one of the hottest plays of the past few years, earning Norris a Pulitzer and a Broadway run whose cast included U of I theatre alums Crystal Dickinson and Brandon Dirden. The U of I production is directed by Lisa Gaye Dixon and features Akua Sarhen in the role Dickinson played, and Preston “Wigasi” Brant in the role Dirden understudied.

Urbana's Station Theatre opens Come Back Little Sheba on November 7, as well, with performances until the 23rd, while across town Parkland College in Champaign goes with November 14 to start its production of Jon Jory's stage adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Phew! A show not starting on the 7th!

November is a little late for Hay Fever, but Noel Coward's droll comedy about a theatre family in the 1920s taking its act to the country is a welcome sight well past the allergy season. Illinois Wesleyan professor Nancy Loitz will direct Hay Fever for McPherson Theatre from the 19th through the 24th, with 8 pm performances on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and a Saturday matinee at 2 on November 24.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the Fred Astaire appearance at the Normal Theater, with Holiday Inn, a lesser effort that stars Bing Crosby as a man who opens a hotel/nightclub in Vermont that's only open on holidays. It's a precursor of sorts to White Christmas, what with the Irving Berlin score that includes the song "White Christmas," although this one is black and white and has some creepy blackface stuff for Abraham Lincoln's birthday. Fred plays Bing's ex-partner, a dancer named Ted Hanover who keeps getting into romantic triangles with singer Bing. Holiday Inn plays the big screen at the Normal Theater from November 21 to 24, followed by another holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street, from November 28 to 30.