Sunday, March 30, 2014

Finding Justice in a Powerful EXONERATED at ISU

Audiences react in different ways to different pieces of theater. But there are some shows that elicit almost the same reaction from everyone who sees them. A gasp of recognition or understanding. Wide eyes. People asking each other "What can we do to change this?" How I Learned to Drive, The Normal Heart, Bhopal... These plays ask you not just to pay attention, but to learn more, push on, help out. And The Exonerated goes at the top of that list.

The Exonerated, which was written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen based on interviews, transcripts, letters and court documents, is an eye-opening piece about the American criminal justice system and the huge cracks that pervade that system. The play centers on six "exonerees," people sent to Death Row for crimes they did not commit who were ultimately freed. Some were exonerated by DNA evidence, others were granted new trials or new deals because of the flaws in the first one, and some are still trying to clear their names years after new evidence surfaced. Cleared or not, exonerated or set free, these people found their lives changed forever.

Each of the six exonerees in the play gets a chance to step forward and tell his or her story, providing a broader picture of police and prosecutorial misconduct, stupidity and myopia, abuse of power and abuse of the powerless. The system we see in the play is one that lumbers toward an inevitable conclusion and punishment no matter what came before it.

As social commentary, The Exonerated provides broad questions about justice, the death penalty, race and fairness. As theater, it presents six terrible, terrifying stories of very real people stuck in a nightmare they can never completely escape. For Illinois State University, director Cyndee Brown focuses on them as people, on who they are as individuals and why they are different from each other, on where they manage to find tiny sparks of hope, on how they manage to go on. She elicits terrific performances from her entire ensembles cast, with Tim Jefferson leading the way as Delbert Tibbs, a theology student and poet who found himself convicted of murder although he did not fit the description of the killer and the only evidence against him was the testimony of a witness who kept changing her story. Tibbs is the heart of the story as constructed by Blank and Jensen, and Jefferson does a beautiful job revealing that heart.

The script provides heartfelt moments for each of Brown's players, from Sydney Moody's hapless Sunny, a hippy who associated with the wrong people, undone by her ignorance about the legal system; to Joe Faifer's sweet, uncomprehending Gary, an Illinois farmer accused of murdering his parents and held without a lawyer for some 20 hours while police coerced a "vision statement" in lieu of a confession; Nathaniel Aikens Jr.'s feisty Robert, a black racetrack worker convicted on the basis of bad DNA evidence; Gregory D. Hicks' David, a kid when he went to Death Row but not when he came out; and Levi Ellis' Kerry, a victim of police and prosecutorial misconduct that continues to this day. Each of them talks straight to the audience, showcasing not just the pain and anger, but the humanity that make the characters come alive.

Mary DeWitt, Anastasia S. Ferguson, Thomas Howie and Dave Krostal fill out the ensemble, playing multiple roles as the spouses, lawyers, cops and witnesses who surround, support and come into conflict with the exonerees. That means their roles are not always as showy as the wrongfully accused, but they provide a crucial context and frame for the drama.

The Exonerated is staged simply to fit inside the intimate space in Centennial West 207, although Jen Kazmierczak's plain platforms, backdrops and chairs create the right mood, Hilary Winkworth's costumes are effective throughout, lighting designer Will Wermerskirchen does great things with stark lights and shadow, and sound designer/composer Chris Cummings ramps up the tension and sends home a definite message when we hear the hard slam of doors and a rough buzz of electricit.

This weekend, the show sold out its Friday and Saturday performances so be sure to get reservations ahead of time if you're planning to go for next week. The Exonerated continues through April 5 in CW 207 on the ISU campus. Tickets are available through the Center for the Performing Arts box office.

If you would like to learn more about the process that helped free the people in the play, or you left the play wondering "What can we do?," you can visit the Exoneration Registry, the Innocence Project, the Innocence Network, the Center on Wrongful Convictions, the Exoneration Project or the Death Penalty Information Center's Innocence List. Each of those projects comes from a law school or other entity devoted to defining the issues and the scope of the problem as well as helping individual prisoners overturn wrongful convictions and return to the world.

by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen

Centennial West 207
Illinois State University School of Theatre and Dance

Director: Cyndee Brown
Scenic Designer: Jen Kazmierczak
Costume Designer: Hilary Winkworth
Lighting Designer: Will Wermerskirchen
Sound Designer and Composer: Chris Cummings
Stage Manager: Connor Herbeck

Cast: Nathaniel Aikens Jr., Mary DeWitt, Levi Ellis, Joe Faifer, Anastasia S. Ferguson, Gregory D. Hicks, Thomas Howie, Tim Jefferson, Dave Krostal and Cydney Moody.

Running time: 1:45, played with intermission.

Disclaimer: I came in to talk to Cyndee Brown's cast about legal issues on two occasions and I am not remotely unbiased on this play or this production.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd (Coming to PBS)

When opera star Bryn Terfel and Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson signed on to play the murderous Sweeney Todd and his accomplice Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic, it was a given that the performances would be few and the tickets would be scarce.

The concert version of Sweeney Todd -- on stage for five performances in early March -- was an all-star event, much like the Company the New York Philharmonic did in 2011. In addition to Thompson and Terfel, Sweeney featured Jeff Blumenkrantz as the Beadle, Christian Borle as Pirelli, Jay Armstrong Johnson as Anthony, Erin Mackey as Johanna and Philip Quast as Judge Turpin. And there's a very special mystery guest who showed up to sing the role of the Beggar Woman. Let's just say she has won a ton of Tony Awards and leave it at that.

And like Company, the show will live on even though the live performances are over. Company was filmed in concert and then released throughout the country in movie theaters. Sweeney Todd is going for the small screen instead. Look for it as part of PBS's Live from Lincoln Center sometime in the future.

For a backstage interview with Thompson and director Lonny Price as well as pictures and more video, check out Charles Isherwood's New York Times review of the concert. Broadway World offers video highlights as well as a review round-up. Let's just say the reaction to Terfel and Thompson as well as Price's staging choices was very positive, and you're gonna wanna see this concert by hook or by crook, by video or by Live from Lincoln Center.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

GYPSY Stripped Bare at Chicago Shakes

Director Gary Griffin has made a cottage industry of producing Stephen Sondheim shows at Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier. Over the years, he's been at the helm of A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Follies, Sunday in the Park with George... And now he's done double duty with Gypsy, the classic stage-mother musical from 1959 with music from Jule Styne and Sondheim lyrics, and Road Show, the newer piece that used to be called Wise Guys and Bounce and maybe even Gold before settling on Road Show. Gypsy was in CST's main Courtyard Theater through last Sunday, while Road Show opened upstairs on March 13 and runs till May 4.

Gypsy has been getting rave reviews during its run, with much praise of Louise Pitre, the one who played Mama Rose, the pushy, brassy, ballsy stage mother at the center of the show. It's a star turn to be sure, written for Ethel Merman, with the likes of Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone taking on "Rose's Turn" over the years. Bette Midler also played the role in a 1993 television version of Gypsy I quite liked. Not a big fan of Rosalind Russell in the 1962 movie, however.

And that's the thing with Gypsy. Its success lies almost entirely with the woman playing Rose. The plot, based on the autobiography of performer Gypsy Rose Lee, involves Mama Rose's continued struggle to push her daughter -- first the blonde and bubbly Baby June and then shy, awkward Louise, the one who turns into Gypsy Rose Lee -- into stardom in vaudeville. Rose's own dream to succeed in show biz makes her shove her kids, willing or not, onto increasingly grim stages, with a schlub of a manager named Herbie and an assortment of other starstruck chorus kids along for the ride. Rose is a force of nature, someone who pays no attention to anything but what she wants, but somehow manages to convince the people around her to go along for the ride. She can't manufacture stardom for her daughters, but she does get a foot in the door, and she does convince Herbie to take the scraps she dishes out. And that's why Bette Midler was so good, because hers was different from the other indelible performances, but still had charm and charisma to go with the muscle underneath. That Herbie could stick around, that Louise could knuckle under as long as she did... It worked.

Louise Pitre, on the other hand, was all muscle. Wiry and small, feisty and fierce, she played the role with a will of iron and no compromises. The warm, husky tone to her voice, reminiscent of Rosemary Clooney of all people, worked against the Iron Maiden persona, but that was the only thing that did. That meant that the chip on Rose's shoulder, the dysfunction in her past, was easy to imagine, but a reunion with her daughter and some sort of rapprochement at the end? Not bloody likely.

Strengths of this production included Kevin Depinet's scenic design, with a warped proscenium arch to give Chicago Shakespeare's Courtyard Theater and its thrust the atmosphere of an aged and worn out vaudeville stage, with all kinds of set pieces -- posters, chandeliers, show biz artifacts -- suspended in the fly space, acting as a representation of Rose's messy past and future, all literally hanging over her head.

The full orchestra this kind of show would've seen on Broadway -- 28 pieces -- was also pulled back to an orchestra of 14, intended to reflect the size of a vaudeville or burlesque orchestra of the time, according to Griffin's program notes. That change was successful for me, and certainly worked with the scene-stealing low-rent strippers Tessie Tura (Barbara E. Robertson), Mazeppa (Molly Callinan) and Electra (Rengin Altay) who popped up in the second act.

I was not as fond of the way the two big transition scenes built into Gypsy were staged. The first gives us Baby June and Her Newsboys magically transforming from children into young adults to show the passage of time without real changes to the act, while the second involves Louise moving from an awkward girl pushed into burlesque to the polished, glamorous Gypsy Rose Lee she becomes. Baby June becoming Dainty June was accomplished without magic at all, just the new corps arriving, greeting the younger versions of themselves, and then taking over, while the Louise/Gypsy change seemed to happen all at once, with actress Jessica Rush going out a kid, embracing her inner star almost immediately, and never really developing the act or showing off the trademark curtain move (where she disrobes and tosses the dress from behind the curtain with a certain flourish). Instead, she stood there in a nude body stocking with some glitter on her chest, revealing all. Neither transition was magical, let's put it that way.

Other bits of staging were more successful, with the musical numbers in general working well, and the big songs like "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn" blasting us into our seats with entertainment. And "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," wherein three sweet but sleazy strippers strut their stuff, brought down the house.

Program notes also tell me that for Road Show, Griffin has gone with the approach director John Doyle famously applied to Sondheim's Company and Sweeney Todd, where cast members played instruments to accompany themselves on stage. It's not my favorite idea. And it makes me not all that excited to see Road Show. But who knows? Maybe it will be just the ticket to bring that difficult material to life. At least Griffin keeps on trying with the Sondheim shows. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

PIZZA ON THE CORNER Is Coming to Your Neighborhood

A group of local theater folk has decided to put on a show. Nothing unusual there, except this one is a television show. Or a web show, at any rate.

Pizza on the Corner, a comedy series created for the web, will involve the goings-on at a small pizza place. Drivers, managers, cooks and customers will show up in thirty-minute episodes planned to be released on Youtube every other week beginning April 14, 2014.

Co-creators Aaron J. Thomas, Kevin Brady and Maegan O’Brien have all worked in pizza places themselves, so they're pooling their experiences and stories to fuel Pizza on the Corner, which will be written by Jake Giszczynski, Alex Gould and Cameron Strassman and star Thomas alongside Shelby Brand, Cassandra Conklin, Drew Burningham, Kyle Fitzgerald, Nina Ganet, Rick Jensen, Brittany Mounce, Anthony Murray, Jen Oziemkowski, Alyssa Ratkovich and Samuel Willis as personalities who inhabit this pizza world.

Thomas notes that the fictional pizza joint at the center of the show will have a Normal, Illinois, address, plus Pizza on the Corner will be filmed and shot in Normal, with all kinds of Illinois State University students behind and in front of the camera. ISU's Student Television Workshop is now on board, as well. And that makes Pizza on the Corner a homegrown Normal product from beginning to end. Or, in a more pizza-appropriate metaphor, from the first batch of dough to the last pepperoni.

Keep an eye on the Pizza on the Corner Facebook page for updates and info as their premiere gets closer. And in the meantime, keep an eye out for faux-pizza employees filming near you. You might just be able to score a cameo as Irate Customer No. 6 or Person Who Didn't Really Order Pizza but Is Being Pranked No. 12.

It could happen!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Post 9 TO 5: Lily and Jane Together Again

As Community Players gets ready to launch 9 to 5, the musical based on the film starring Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin, we get the news that Netflix is planning to reunite Fonda and Tomlin in a new comedy series.

Netflix has enjoyed success with original programming like Arrested Development, House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, so it's no surprise they're continuing to look for projects. Fonda got great notices when she appeared in HBO's The Newsroom, while Tomlin got her start on Laugh-In and has shown up in everything from The West Wing to Desperate Housewives and Web Therapy in recent years, making it clear both actresses are open to TV. On the other hand, does Netflix really count as television? You can watch their shows on your TV, yes, but also on your laptop or iPad or whatever device you want, or have them send you the discs to pop in your DVD player, just like the other movies and shows they offer.

Whatever you want to call Netflix's corner of the entertainment world, you'll find Fonda and Tomlin there, playing characters named Grace and Frankie. Grace and Frankie is also slated to be the name of the series, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The two women are former enemies "whose lives are turned upside down when their husbands announce they are in love with each other and plan to get married. The women, much to their own dismay, find that their lives are permanently intertwined and, much to their surprise, they find they have each other."

Netflix has ordered 13 episodes and plans to air the show in 2015. Grace and Frankie is created and written by Marta Kauffman, who created Friends, and Howard Morris, producer of Home Improvement.

Morris and the other Home Improvement producers were nominated for an Emmy for Best Comedy Series, while Kauffman won in that category for Friends. But they are both lightweights compared to Tomlin, who's won five primetime Emmys and one for daytime, two Tonys, two Peabodys, a Grammy and the Mark Twain Prize for humor, along with an Oscar nomination for the movie Nashville. Fonda has won two Oscars -- for Klute and Coming Home -- with five more nominations. She also won an Emmy in 1984 for her performance in The Dollmaker and has been nominated twice since then, including last year for The Newsroom.

Fonda and Tomlin are big talents, let's put it that way. Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos is quoted as saying, "The show created for them by Marta and Howard is warm, very funny and anything but wholesome. We can't wait." in the Hollywood Reporter piece.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

David Auburn's LOST LAKE Finds Itself in Manhattan Next Season

Last month, we saw the inaugural production of the "Sullivan Project," an initiative within the University of Illinois Department of Theatre to workshop new plays. The Sullivan in question is Daniel Sullivan, a prominent Broadway director who is also the Swanlund Endowed Chair and a professor of theatre at U of I. Sullivan's choice to start this project was Lost Lake, a new play by David Auburn, someone Sullivan had worked with before. Proof, also by Auburn, earned Sullivan a Tony as best director back in 2001.

Auburn was in Urbana in January to revise and rework his script as he saw how it played out with Sullivan at the helm and New York actors Jake Weber and Opal Alladin inhabiting the two characters in the play. Weber played Hogan, a scruffy man with a messy past and an even messier cabin, while Alladin was Veronica, a woman from the city who'd rented his cabin by a lake. How the two attempted to move forward through the murky waters in their lives formed the plot of the play. The result was an intriguing, if somewhat uneven Lost Lake, one with all kinds of promise, but some plot issues less than successfully resolved for me.

At the time, I thought that the role of manipulative, charming, infuriating Hogan would be catnip for actors of a certain age, while Veronica was less fully developed. Alladin looked beautiful and did great work with what she had, but there were some twists written into the script that just didn't work, and the balance between the characters was off. At a talkback after the performance I saw, Sullivan talked about how much Auburn had changed who this woman was and what her revelations were during the process, and it seemed clear that Lost Lake was still a work in progress.

The production certainly looked finished, however. Tucked inside the Studio Theatre at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Lost Lake had the benefit of a first-rate set, as scenic designer J. Michael Griggs established the rustic, mysterious lake cabin as a legitimate third character for Hogan and Veronica to play off.

I wondered where Lost Lake was headed after its Urbana workshop, and I asked that question during the talkback I attended. Sullivan indicated that it was very much up in the air, and that if it did move on to another production of some sort, he wasn't at all sure that he would be attached to it.

Was that just a case of hedging bets till plans were set? I don't know. But I do know that the New York Times reported last week that Lost Lake, with Sullivan at the helm, will be part of Manhattan Theatre Club's 2014-15 season. Sullivan will also direct The Country House, a new play by Donald Margulies that precedes Lost Lake on the schedule. In what is being called its world premiere, Lost Lake is set to begin previews at the New York City Center Stage on October 21 and open on November 11, 2014.

No word on whether Weber or Alladin will take on Hogan and Veronica again. I hope so. They braved Central Illinois in January and they ought to get something for their efforts!

Monday, March 17, 2014

SUBMISSIONS ONLY Episode 2 Tonight

Everybody should know by now that I am mad for Submissions Only, the fun and fizzy web series about life upon (and outside) the wicked stage in New York. The title refers to the casting agency at the center of the show, the one that pulls together our heroine, actress Penny Reilly (Kate Wetherhead), who is a reader at the agency between roles, her best friend Tim (Colin Hanlon), who runs the place, and Penny's agent Steven (Stephen Bienskie), who used to have a thing with Tim. Penny also meets her current love interest, an adorable guy named Aaron Miller, played by the adorable Santino Fontana, when he, too, acts as a reader for a casting session. But Aaron gets a really good role, gets a girlfriend, one Serena Maxwell (Donna Vivino) who is fairly high up the food chain, and finds out his big break is a flop, all while he and Penny fail to get it together.

When we left them at the end of Season 2, they had admitted their attraction and even kissed, but he had neglected to break up with Serena AND Penny had been cast in a show with her. So that's awkward. The show is called Jeremy's Fort, which looks a great deal like Jeremy's Fart written on the callboard. Which is also awkward.

Episode 1 of this season didn't really fix any of that, although we did see Aaron and Penny and Serena gave Penny (and everyone else) a bunch of macarons, those popular and colorful little cookies that are all the rage.

But the joy of Submissions Only is not the romance alone. Or the macarons. It's the inside, irreverent look inside show biz, as we see the different pieces of a career spent trying to get roles and then trying to keep them while maintaining some sort of personal life. And there are all kinds of bad, desperate and weird auditions, carried out by Broadway and TV stars we know and love. There are so many fab cameos it's getting tough to list them all, but suffice it to say you must just spot Danny Burstein, Bobby Cannavale, Kristin Chenoweth, Rachel Dratch, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Hunter Foster, Joel Grey, Brian d'Arcy James, Kristen Johnston, Nick Jonas, Jeremy Jordan, Linda Lavin, Beth Leavel, Judith Light, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Adam Pascal, Roger Rees, Chita Rivera, Michael Urie, and most of the chorus of Newsies. Plus Anne L. Nathan and Max von Essen are on board as recurring characters. Jared Gertner was also there as a very, very perky reader named Randall, but we saw last time that Randall booked a gig on a cruise ship (to cover Gertner's absence -- he's in the national tour and London productions of Book of Mormon.)

There are also songs, dances and a lot of spoofy pieces of fictional shows.

The good news is that Episode 2 of Season 3 is available tonight between 8 and 9:30 pm Central time, back at Submissions Only creators Wetherhead and Andrew Keenan-Bolger also invite you to tweet, using the hashtag #SubOnly3, after you've seen it. Or before. Or during. Whatever moves you. The Twitter party (which extends to Instagram and Facebook, if those are your social media of choice) is scheduled for 8 to 9 Central. Or, you know, 9 to 10 Eastern time. A show this NYC-centric probably should use Eastern time.

Submissions Only. Like having a career in New York theatre but getting to laugh at all the pain and rejection because it's happening to someone else.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

New Route Untangles GIDION'S KNOT

You may not have heard of Johnna Adams, but her play Gidion's Knot has emerged as a favorite in a lot of quarters. Adams and Gidion's Knot were nominated for the American Theatre Critics Association/Steinberg New Play Award as well as the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and the whole play was published in the pages of American Theatre magazine.

The idea behind the play is certainly topical, something that catches you immediately. A 5th grade boy was suspended, with tragic consequences. His mother, desperate to understand, arrives to talk to his teacher. But there are no easy answers. Was he a bully or being bullied? Where can fault and blame be fixed?

New Route Theatre and Artistic Director Don Shandrow are now bringing Gidion's Knot and its tangled issues of parenting and society, of where violence begins, of how to spot and how to handle troubled children, to Bloomington-Normal in an unusual production staged inside a classroom at what used to be Bloomington High School and is now Mt. Moriah Christian Church, at 510 East Washington Street. "Since the action of the play takes place in a school classroom during a parent/teacher conference, we felt that the location would make for a more exciting theatre experience," Shandrow notes on New Route's Facebook page.

The New Route production is directed by Shandrow and stars Kathleen Kirk and Gabrielle Lott-Rogers. Performances begin March 28, followed by performances on March 29 and 30 and April 4, 5 and 6. Friday and Saturday performances begin at 7:30 pm, with Sunday performances at 2:30 pm. Tickets are priced at $10 or $8 for seniors and students, and reservations can be made by calling 309-827-7330 or emailing

And because the idea of supporting female playwrights is close to my heart, I'd like to note that 2014 is shaping up as an extraordinary year for Bloomington-Normal when it comes to plays written by women, with Gidion's Knot at New Route later this month, just after The Exonerated, directed by Cyndee Brown for ISU, which was a collaboration between Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. That will be followed by Rona Munro's Iron at Heartland and Emily Mann's Mrs. Packard at ISU, both in April, and then Sarah Ruhl's Vibrator Play, Lynn Nottage's Meet Vera Stark and Quiara Alegría Hudes's Water by the Spoonful, all at ISU in the fall. Illinois State University just completed a production of Diana Son's Stop Kiss, directed by Leah Cassella, as well. And there will almost certainly be additions to that list when we hear about Heartland's 10-minute plays and New Plays from the Heartland, as well as Heartland's and Illinois Wesleyan's fall choices. Wouldn't it be nice if this were just business as usual, instead of extraordinary?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Playwrights Anonymous Stages IT'S ALL ABOUT ME Tonight

Playwrights Anonymous, the spin-off writers group from Heartland Theatre's Young at Heartland Acting Troupe, will not be deterred by a little snow. The playwrights are scheduled to perform some of their original pieces tonight at the Eaton Gallery at 411 North Center Street in Bloomington. Snow or no, they report that the show -- called It's All About Me -- will go on tonight at 7 pm. Tickets are $5, and reservations have been brisk, so you are wise to call ahead at 309-828-1575 to make sure there's space before you go. For more information about Playwrights Anonymous, call 309-706-8264.

It's All About Me will include staged readings of eight short plays previously published in the volume "Seniors Still Acting Up: Short Comedies," which is available for purchase at Plays include Afternoon Antiquing by Lynda Straw, The Car and the Garage Door by Janet Grub, First Time by Elsie Cadieux, Ladies Who Lunch by Carol Scott, Pink by Joy Schuler, A Promise Kept by Judy Franciosi, Two of  Kind by Bruce Boeck, and What Emergency by Holly Klass.

Playwrights Anonymous will be back at Eaton Gallery with new programs of short plays in May and October. The October program will be centered around the idea of the circus, as inspired by Herb Eaton's paintings.

Playwrights Anonymous founder Bruce Boeck (L) with Herb Eaton

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

MAD MEN Will Blow Your Mind April 13

Lots of shows have come back from their winter hiatus recently, with Once Upon a Time, The Good Wife, Revenge and The Mentalist all starting up again last Sunday alone. At the very same time, other beloved TV shows are bidding adieu. HBO's True Detective wound up its serial killer drama Sunday as well, while we're getting final bows from Shawn, Gus and Psych on March 26th and Ted and the gang at How I Met Your Mother on the 31st. Yes, that's right. After all these years, after Ted has told his children about years and years of his life when he did not meet their mother, he's finally going to get around to the big event. Except she may be dead. Or not. It's kind of a muddle.

AMC's Mad Men is avoiding the mess that is March by launching the first half of its final season in April. April 13, to be exact. I've had fun over the years speculating on Mad Men's new season based on its iconic poster art. There was the Don all alone in the office season, as the new firm came about, the naked mannequin season, where women were treated badly by more than one Mad man, and the Duality of Don season, where his chickens came home to roost. This time out, its psychedelic Don, with poster art created by Milton Glaser, the celebrated graphic artist probably best known for his I Love NY image, the one with the heart instead of the word "love," or a 1967 Bob Dylan poster. TVLine reports that the man behind Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, had a Milton Glaser poster somewhere in his childhood home.

So what does this way-out, purple paisley pop art suggest? That drugs are in Don Draper's future? Or maybe his daughter Sally's, as she grows into part of the turn-on, tune-in, drop-out generation? Note the sloshy pink cocktail under "men," showing off Don's alcohol habit. And Don's sofa drape position harkens back to Season 1's poster, perhaps indicating that Don is right back where he started, even if the world around him has changed from the 1950s black-and-white punch-card milieu to a 60s psychedelic whirlpool. It's not clear whether he's on a Magic Carpet Ride or in the midst of a Purple Haze. Fantasy will set you free, Don. You've got me blowin' my mind. Is it tomorrow or the end of time?

I guess we'll find out more about that and other pressing questions about Don's job, which name he's going by, who he's schtupping, and what's happening to the ad agency he left behind when Mad Men returns April 13.

Monday, March 3, 2014

March Marches On

It's no secret that February's weather was terrible, so I suppose it should come as no surprise that I was under it -- under the weather, I mean -- for the last week of February. Or, actually, most of February. That means I am way behind on telling you what's happening in March, talking about the Oscars, bidding adieu to Downton Abbey for another season, or covering the shows that opened and closed during the time I was sick. It's been a rough month!

But now that it's March and I actually started the day without running a temp, let's try to pull ourselves out of February malaise and get on with the show.

"Ameowadeus" with Christoph Waltz (L) and Kevin Spacey (R)
As a side note to last night's Oscars, I do have to direct you to Youtube to see the Jimmy Kimmel parody videos. They mix Hollywood stars and dramatic tropes with favorite video memes, like "Charlie Bit Me" and the Keyboard Cat. I have watched the Keyboard Cat one ("Ameowadeus") with Kevin Spacey and Christoph Waltz at least twelve times already. And there are no words for "David After Dentist Double Rainbow Oh My God! in 3D" as a drug-induced Baz Luhrman hallucination involving Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Catherine Zeta Jones, Samuel L. Jackson and Seth Rogen.

Back in real life, Other Desert Cities continues this week at Heartland Theatre, turning in its last four performances on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The weekday shows begin at 7:30 pm, while the final Sunday matinee begins at 2 on March 9. Theater critic Nancy Steele Brokaw lauded the show's acting and emotional punch in her review for the Pantagraph, and audiences have been reporting they are blown away by director Sandra Zielinski's production of this Jon Robin Baitz drama about a wealthy family's secrets and lies.

Today is the big day -- Monday, March 3 -- when the net series Submissions Only finally returns to tell us what's been happening with unlucky New York actress Penny Reilly (co-creator Kate Wetherhead) as she navigates auditions, shows, the drama created by crazy colleagues and friends, and the hint of a thing with the adorable Aaron Miller (Santino Fontana). Submissions Only is addictive. If you haven't already seen all the episodes from season 1 and 2, you'll watch to catch those before diving into season 3 at starting at 8 Central time tonight. Once you've watched (or during your viewing experience) you can also chat with the cast on Twitter @submissionsonly between 8 and 9 pm Central/9 and 10 EST.

Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld takes the stage in the Tryon Festival Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana from March 6 to 9. This production is a product of the new musical theater/opera program at the University of Illinois called the Lyric Theatre @Illinois. Opera star Nathan Gunn currently holds the position of General Director for the Lyric Theatre, while his wife, pianist Julie Jordan Gunn, acts as the Director of Lyric Theatre Studies. Orpheus, described as "an irreverent romp through a lusty and lively heaven, hell, and earth," is one of three Lyric productions planned for this year, mixing musical theater with opera in an attempt to teach and nurture well-rounded performers who can sing, dance, act and entertain across disciplines.

If you're a baseball fan and you know your Bloomington-Normal history, you know about Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn, the Hall of Fame pitcher buried in Evergreen Cemetery. Radbourn pitched what has been called "the winningest season in big league history," piling up 59 victories in the 1884 season on his way to a career total of 309 wins. He's been dead since 1897, but he has a Twitter account nonetheless, proving you can never truly silence an ornery, cantankerous baseball player. Old Hoss has shown up in the local Discovery Walk at Evergreen Cemetery, he's got a book about that amazing 59-win season, and now he's got a play. Playwright Jared Brown has put together a piece on Old Hoss for Illinois Voices Theatre in conjunction with the McLean County Museum of History. Rhys Lovell, who portrayed Radbourn in the cemetery walk, returns to play the role, accompanied by actors John Bowen and Howard Rogers. They'll play out this new take on Radbourn's colorful life in three performances March 7, 8 and 9 in the Governor Fifer Courtroom at the McLean County Museum. Tickets are priced at $15 for the general public and $12 for members of the Museum. You can purchase tickets in person at the Museum or by phone at 309-827-0428.

Community Players is back in the game starting March 20, when they open 9 to 5 the Musical, the stage (and, yes, musical) version of the 1980 comedy film that starred Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin as three working women trying to make a living in a hostile corporate world. Dolly Parton wrote the title song for the film and the score for the Broadway show and she certainly knows her way around a pop tune. For Players, Brett Cottone directs a cast that includes Kallie Bundy, Wendi Fleming and Aimee Kerber as the three friends who take drastic action against a sexist pig of a boss, with Mark Robinson as the pig in question. Performances of 9 to 5 continue through April 6 at Community Players.

Next up at Illinois State University is the docu-drama The Exonerated, written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen and based on real trial transcripts, court documents and interviews with death row inmates who'd been wrongfully convicted. What do you do when you know you're innocent but the justice system has completely failed you? Even after the miracle of exoneration, how do you go back to living a life unscarred by what you've been through? Director Cyndee Brown brings this call to action to the ISU Center for the Performing Arts in a special benefit performance on March 21, followed by a short run in Centennial West 207 from March 27 to April 5. Brown's cast includes Nate Aikens, Mary DeWitt, Levi Ellis, Joe Faifer, Anastasia Ferguson, Gregory D. Hicks, Thomas Howie, Tim Jefferson, Dave Krostal and Cydney Moody as exonerees, witnesses, police, attorneys and other interested parties. CW 207 is a small space, so get your tickets now. You can pretty much bet The Exonerated will sell out fast.

A movie I am very much looking forward to -- Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel -- has been announced for a March 28 opening at the Art Theater Co-op in Champaign. Wes Anderson is an either/or proposition for me. I loved Moonrise Kingdom and Rushmore, but was unimpressed and uninvolved with The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited. Steve Zissou landed somewhere in the middle, but probably closer to the wrong side. Will The Grand Budapest Hotel be a dream or a dud? Based on the trailer and the amazing cast (Ralph Fiennes, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Tom Wilkinson, Jude Law, and of course Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman) it looks like it should be right in my wheelhouse.