Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Tony Nods Go to GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE, HEDWIG, Rylance and McDonald

Today was Tony nominations day, when multi-media performers Jonathan Groff (Frozen, Looking, Spring Awakening) and Lucy Liu (Charlie's Angels, Elementary, God of Carnage) took the podium at the Paramount Hotel in New York City to announce who among Broadway performers and which among Broadway shows Tony voters wanted to honor.

But first... Hugh Jackman crashed the announcement to offer a reminder that the Tony Awards themselves will take place on Sunday, June 8 at 8 pm Eastern time. Don't forget!

Back to the nominees. A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, a musical version of the Alec Guiness movie Kind Hearts and Coronets, landed at the top of the nominations heap with ten overall, with Neil Patrick Harris and Hedwig and the Angry Inch coming up next with eight.

There were some surprises, like the fact that they mustered only four nominees in the Best Musical category, with no love for The Bridges of Madison County, Bullets Over Broadway or If/Then. The nomination for Chris O'Dowd as Best Actor in a Leading Role for Of Mice and Men wasn't entirely surprising, although the production wasn't exactly a critics' favorite. But there was no space for Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan or Denzel Washington in A Raisin in the Sun, which were more well regarded. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart also came up empty for their performances in No Man's Land and Waiting for Godot and Zachary Quinto was the only member of The Glass Menagerie cast not to get a nomination.

I'm also a little miffed that Santino Fontana didn't score a nod for playing Moss Hart in Act One, although the oldest version of Hart in the play, Tony Shalhoub, did. Fontana has to run several miles a performance to play his Hart, and he should've been recognized for that, as well as for being adorable and fabulous in general. While we're on the subject of Act One, it might have been nice to see Andrea Martin on the Featured Actress list for her scene-stealing performance as Aunt Kate.

Meanwhile, Britain's Mark Rylance, a two-time Tony winner, took two nominations this time out for roles in Shakespeare plays. His turn as Richard III in Richard III earned him another nod as Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Play, while his Olivia in an all-male Twelfth Night pulled in a nomination in the Featured Actor category. I am not a big Rylance fan -- he was the first Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre but he's a Shakespeare denier, which I find quite odd -- plus I'm not enthusiastic about the conceit of all-male Shakespeare shows when good roles for women in Shakespeare are already scarce. But he certainly does play well to the Tony committee.

The only one who plays better may be Audra McDonald. She's won five Tonys already, and if she picks up the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play for her work in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, she will set a new record with six acting Tonys, including one in each of the four major categories.

So who else was nominated? Here's the list:

Best Play
Act One, by James Lapine
All the Way, by Robert Schenkkan
Casa Valentina, by Harvey Fierstein
Mothers and Sons, by Terrence McNally
Outside Mullingar, by John Patrick Shanley

Best Musical
After Midnight
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder

Best Revival of a Play
The Cripple of Inishmaan, by Martin McDonagh
The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams
A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry
Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare

Best Revival of a Musical
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Les Misérables

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play
Tyne Daly, Mothers and Sons
LaTonya Richardson Jackson, A Raisin in the Sun
Cherry Jones, The Glass Menagerie
Audra McDonald, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill
Estelle Parsons, The Velocity of Autumn

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play
Samuel Barnett, Twelfth Night
Bryan Cranston, All The Way
Chris O'Dowd, Of Mice and Men
Mark Rylance, Richard III
Tony Shalhoub, Act One

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Mary Bridget Davis, A Night With Janis Joplin
Sutton Foster, Violet
Idina Menzel, If/Then
Jessie Mueller, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Kelli O'Hara, The Bridges of Madison County

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Neil Patrick Harris, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Ramin Karimloo, Les Misérables
Andy Karl, Rocky
Jefferson Mays, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder
Bryce Pinkham, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play
Sarah Greene, The Cripple of Inishmaan
Celia Keenan-Bolger, The Glass Menagerie
Sophie Okonedo, A Raisin in the Sun
Anika Noni Rose, A Raisin in the Sun
Mare Winningham, Casa Valentina

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play
Reed Birney, Casa Valentina
Paul Chahidi, Twelfth Night
Stephen Fry, Twelfth Night
Mark Rylance, Twelfth Night
Brian J. Smith, The Glass Menagerie

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Linda Emond, Cabaret
Lena Hall, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Anika Larsen, Beautiful - The Carole King Musical
Adriane Lenox, After Midnight
Lauren Worsham, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Danny Burstein, Cabaret
Nick Cordero, Bullets Over Broadway
Joshua Henry, Violet
James Monroe Iglehart, Aladdin
Jarrod Spector, Beautiful - The Carole King Musical

Best Director of a Play
Tim Carroll, Twelfth Night
Michael Grandage, The Cripple of Inishmaan
Kenny Leon, A Raisin in the Sun
John Tiffany, The Glass Menagerie

Best Director of a Musical
Warren Carlyle, After Midnight
Michael Mayer, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Leigh Silverman,Violet
Darko Tresnjak,A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder

Best Book of a Musical
Chad Beguelin, Aladdin
Douglas McGrath, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Woody Allen, Bullets Over Broadway
Robert L. Freedman, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics)
Alan Menken, music, and Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin, lyrics, Aladdin.
Jason Robert Brown, music and lyrics, The Bridges of Madison County
Steven Lutvak, music, and Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, lyrics, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder
Tom Kitt, music, and Brian Yorkey, lyrics, If/Then

Best Choreography
Warren Carlyle, After Midnight
Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine, Rocky
Casey Nicholaw, Aladdin
Susan Stroman, Bullets Over Broadway

Best Orchestrations
Doug Besterman, Bullets Over Broadway
Jason Robert Brown, The Bridges of Madison County
Steve Sidwell, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Jonathan Tunick, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder

Best Scenic Design of a Play
Beowulf Boritt, Act One
Bob Crowley, The Glass Menagerie
Es Devlin, Machinal
Christopher Oram, The Cripple of Inishmaan

Best Scenic Design of a Musical
Christopher Barreca, Rocky
Julian Crouch, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Alexander Dodge, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder
Santo Loquasto, Bullets Over Broadway

Best Costume Design of a Play
Jane Greenwood, Act One
Michael Krass, Machinal
Rita Ryack, Casa Valentina
Jenny Tiramani, Twelfth Night

Best Costume Design of a Musical
Linda Cho, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder
William Ivey Long, Bullets Over Broadway
Arianne Phillips, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Isabel Toledo, After Midnight

Best Lighting Design of a Play
Paule Constable, The Cripple of Inishmaan
Jane Cox, Machinal
Natasha Katz, The Glass Menagerie
Japhy Weideman, Of Mice and Men

Best Lighting Design of a Musical
Kevin Adams, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Christopher Akerlind, Rocky
Howell Binkley, After Midnight
Donald Holder, The Bridges of Madison County

Best Sound Design of a Play
Alex Baranowski, The Cripple of Inishmaan
Steve Canyon Kennedy, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
Dan Moses Schreier, Act One
Matt Tierney, Machinal

Best Sound Design of a Musical
Peter Hylenski, After Midnight
Tim O’Heir, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Mick Potter, Les Misérables
Brian Ronan, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

The 2014 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater will be presented to costume designer Jane Greenwood, while President and CEO of The Actors Fund Joe Benincasa, photographer Joan Marcus and general manager Charlotte Wilcox will receive this year's Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theater.

As announced a few days ago, the Signature Theatre will receive the 2014 Regional Theater Tony Award. Yes, the Signature is in New York. This is the first year that New York theaters were eligible for the Regional Tony. Why? I have no idea. The whole point of the Regional Tony was to honor theaters outside New York, after all.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Shakespeare Project's ALL'S WELL Tonight at ISU CPA

Tonight's the night for All's Well That Ends Well.

Last year, the Shakespeare Project of Chicago brought a staged reading of Edward III to the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts, with a cast that included Illinois Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Kevin Rich and ISU alum Brynne Barnard. This year, the Shakespeare Project of Chicago brings a staged reading of All's Well That Ends Well to the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts, with a cast that includes Illinois Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Kevin Rich and ISU alum Brynne Barnard.

The Shakespeare Project has been around since 1996, with a mission to bring to life the words of William Shakespeare. The staged reading format makes it possible to use some props, some costume pieces and some design elements, but overall the actors focus on the words, as we see them perform book in hand. Or, as Artistic Director Peter Garino puts it on the Shakespeare Project website, "I often explain to people that have not seen our work before that their experience of the play won’t be less, but more because by placing our energy completely on Shakespeare’s text we allow the play to emerge in an unencumbered setting that reveals new insights into the play's characters and themes."

Last year, we saw this treatment of Edward III, a play not traditionally part of the Shakespeare canon, one which has presented authorship debates for some time. In its depiction of Prince Edward and his military and personal campaigns, Edward III was reminiscent of Richard III and especially Henry V. Is that enough evidence that Edward III written by Shakespeare, at least partially? You needed to see it to form your own conclusion. But it's an intriguing notion.

All's Well is more familiar territory for Shakespeare fans, although it also has issues. Here's how the Festival describes All's Well:
Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well has been deemed a "problem play" for several reasons. There are no records of it having been performed in Shakespeare's lifetime. The 1623 First Folio version was based on an uncorrected manuscript draft. Most importantly, the story and its characters can prove to be downright puzzling. Helena, the gifted daughter of a court physician, loves Bertram, a proud young man of noble birth. But is he worthy of her devotion? In an adventure that takes us from France to the Florentine wars of Italy and back again, we can ask ourselves what lengths we would go to for the object of our desires. Associate Artistic Director for The Shakespeare Project of Chicago, Barbara Zahora, directs.
The Shakespeare Project, in collaboration with the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, will plumb the murky depths of All's Well That Ends Well and Helena's inexplicable passion for unworthy Bertram tonight at 6 pm in the Kemp Recital Hall at the Center for the Performing Arts on the ISU campus. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the CPA box office either by phone (1-866-ILSHAKE or 309-438-2535) or in person before the show. Note that there are separate tickets for a post-show reception and discussion and you are directed to ask about those at the box office.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Happy 450th, Shakespeare!

Around the world, theaters, libraries and booksellers are celebrating the 450th birthday of the (approximate) birth of William Shakespeare. Nobody is sure exactly which day he was born, but the 23rd is the generally accepted day of celebration. To give you an idea of how global this birthday bash has become, I'm including images from around the world with this blog post.

Illinois State University's production of Pericles continues this week, offering one opportunity for Bardolatry. And you'll get another one on Monday the 28th, as the Illinois Shakespeare Festival brings in All's Well That Ends Well from the Shakespeare Project of Chicago, with a cast that includes Festival Artistic Director Kevin Rich and ISU alumna Brynne Barnard.

Over in Urbana, you can have cake and "libations" at the University of Illinois Rare Book and Manuscript Library today if you can recite at least 14 lines from somewhere in the Shakespeare canon. U of I's Rare Book Library includes a copy of the First Folio, although it's unlikely they'll let you near that with your cake and libations.

In Chicago, there's a PBS show airing tonight called "Our City, Our Shakespeare," a special exhibit at the Newberrry Library, and productions of Henry V and Romeo and Juliet involving the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on Navy Pier, the Chicago Philharmonic and the Joffrey Ballet.

You are also invited to Talk Like Shakespeare or take an online quiz that illustrates how current the Bard is.

The Newberry Library exhibit is open till June 21; it includes a look at their First Folio as well as an annotated script of Henry V with notes from Chicago Shakespeare's Barbara Gaines on the production of Henry V that started it all for that theater in 1986.

One of the more intriguing pieces of information that's emerged in the wake of the Shakespeare 450 celebrations is the purported discovery of Mr. Shakespeare's own dictionary by two antiquarian booksellers. George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler bought a copy of John Baret's An Alvearie or Quadruple Dictionarie, published in London in 1580, on eBay in 2008. Since then, the two booksellers have been examining the annotations in the book, which they believe are strongly linked to Shakespeare's work and even his creative process. The result of their work is a book of their own, Shakespeare's Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Life, which is available in hard cover and ebook editions.

Scholars will no doubt be buzzing about (and disputing) their claims for years, but the book itself is certainly interesting. The Atlantic, the Guardian and the Telegraph have weighed in. We await word from the Folger Library and other libraries and institutions who will have their say sooner or later. In the meantime, for the Folger's blog, Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe have detailed how the Alvearie and its marginalia will be studied and examined as its authenticity and Koppelman and Wechsler's conclusions are tested.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Silk Road Rising Visits ISU This Week

Chicago's Silk Road Rising, a company of artists devoted to creating live theater and video pieces that "tell stories through primarily Asian American and Middle Eastern American lenses" is heading to Illinois State University for a guest artist residency this week. Those guest artists include ISU alums Corey Pond, Silk Road Rising's production manager, and Neal Ryan Shaw, the company's resident dramaturg, as well as Jamil Khoury, Founding Artistic Director, and Malik Gillani, Founding Executive Director.

Speaking in a video about the Silk Road company and its goals, Gillani says, "In representing communities that intersect and overlap, we are advancing a polycultural worldview." That view is on display in each of the three pieces these artists are bringing to Bloomington-Normal, with Mosque Alert, a video play about the conflict that arises among neighbors when a mosque is built in their town, set for Westhoff Theatre on Thursday, April 24, beginning at 4 pm; Precious Stones, a stage play that focuses on a love story between two women -- one Muslim and one Jewish -- trying to find common ground as battle rages in the Mideast, scheduled at 2 pm on Friday the 25th in Westhoff Theatre; and Sacred Stages, a film that tells the story of Silk Road Rising's relationship with the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple. Fittingly, Sacred Stages will be shown in a church -- the Mennonite Church of Normal on Cottage Avenue -- on Friday at 7 pm.

Discussions will follow the films Mosque Alert and Sacred Stages, and all three events are free and open to the public. For more information, click here to see the Redbird Story or visit ISU's School of Theatre Facebook page.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Auditions Tonight & Tomorrow for FOWL PLAYS at Heartland

Heartland Theatre is gearing up for its annual 10-minute play festival with eight winning plays written on the theme FOWL PLAYS set for production all four weekends in June. A festival with eight different plays means lots of roles are available, covering a range of ages in a range of styles, and auditions for all those roles are set for tonight and tomorrow from 7 to 9 pm.

The plays under the FOWL PLAYS umbrella are detailed below, including general descriptions of the characters. Note that Heartland often casts actors in more than one role, and sometimes casts more than one actor in the same role to cover conflicts in the busy month of June. Ages given below are the approximate ages of the characters, but not necessarily the ages of the actors. That means if you think you might be interested but you have a conflict or you are not the exact age listed but think the FOWL PLAYS sound cool, it's best to come out and audition just in case. The more actors at auditions, the more options directors have.

Here are the winning FOWL PLAYS:

BIRD ON A FERRY by Blaise Miller, Frisco TX.
A couple on a blind date is confronted by a disheveled man carrying a small box with a bird inside. But appearances can be deceiving.
One woman, 25-35. Two men, 25-35. One man, any age.

THE CAW CAW CONSPIRACY by Claire BonEnfant, Toronto ONT Canada.
When Earl takes a page from Hitchcock and The Birds to get rid of a neighbor he doesn’t like, he may be hoist with his own paper crow.
One woman, 40-70. One man, 40-70. One man, 20-40.

THE DECOY by Joe Strupek, Bloomington IL
A hand-carved duck decoy could be a very valuable thing. It could be the one spark in Drew’s very lousy day. Or it could just be a decoy.
Three men, any ages.

FLY GIRL FLY by Brigitte Viellieu-Davis, West New York NJ
A young graffiti artist discovers what it means to be “something” when she runs into a woman in the park sketching birds.
One woman, 18-22. One woman, 40s-60s. One man or woman, any age.

THE MURDER OF CROWS by Nancy Halper, Summit NJ
Divorced parents Debra and Greg aren't sure what to make of their child’s strange drawing of crows at a parent-teacher conference.
One women, 25-40. One woman, 25-70. One man, 25-40.

POLLY by Ron Burch, Los Angeles CA
John wants to introduce his new girlfriend to his best friend Maureen. But his girlfriend Polly is a parrot. Or is she?
Two women, 20-40. One man, 20-40.

TWO IN THE BUSH by Tim West, San Diego CA
Some birds mate for life. Some mate seasonally. And some couples have a hard time keeping it together when they try to catch an eagle with a camera.
One man and one woman, 30-60, as long as they match each other.

WHOOOO? by Russell Weeks, Seattle WA
A man tells his psychiatrist that he has lost his beak, his wings and his feathers as part of a transition from owl to human. What kind of doctor would believe him?
One man and one woman, any age.

Directors will rehearse on a rotating schedule during May, with performances from June 5 to 29. Auditions will consist of cold readings from scripts, and will take place at Heartland Theatre tonight and tomorrow night from 7 to 9 pm.

If you would like more information, send an email to playfest@heartlandtheatre.org or click here to see the FOWL PLAYS page on Heartlands website.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Poetry to Sustain the World April 22 in Normal

It's National Poetry Month! Take a moment and recite a poem to yourself. Any poem. Mary Had a Little Lamb. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. Tyger! Tyger! burning bright. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Once upon a midnight dreary... "Hope" is the thing with feathers. If. O Captain! My Captain! somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond... No Man Is an Island. How do I love thee? Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

What poetry sounds like and what role it plays may have changed over the years, but there has always been poetry and there will always be poets.

In celebration of National Poetry Month as well as Earth Day, which happens on April 22, local poet Kathleen Kirk, who is also poetry editor at international online arts magazine Escape Into Life, will join Scott Poole, a poet from Vancouver, Washington, who also works with Escape Into Life, along with Central Illinois poets Judith Valente and Susan Baller-Shepard, for a program they are calling "News That Stays News: Sustaining Our World Through Poetry."

This poetry reading, which will take place on Tuesday, April 22, from 7 to 8:30 pm at the First United Methodist Church on School Street in Normal, is hosted by Bruce Bergethon, General Manager of WGLT and producer of "Poetry Radio."Admission is free and open to the public. The event is sponsored by the Parret Endowment for Religion, Culture & the Art.

For more information on "New That Stays News" or the poets who are participating, click here. While you're there, you may want to check out other arts and art forms at Escape Into Life. Definitely a nice place to visit!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Annie Baker's THE FLICK Takes the Pulitzer Prize for Drama 2014

The Pulitzer Prize for Drama for 2014 has gone to Annie Baker's play The Flick, which played at Playwrights Horizons in early 2013. The Pulitzer is awarded to "a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life." In choosing it, the Pulitzer committee described The Flick as "a thoughtful drama with well-crafted characters that focuses on three employees of a Massachusetts art-house movie theater, rendering lives rarely seen on the stage." The Playwrights Horizons run was directed by frequent Annie Baker collaborator Sam Gold.

The Flick garnered praise from critics like Charles Isherwood in The New York Times, who noted that this "lovingly observed play will sink deep into your consciousness, and probably stay there for a while." Other prominent sources were equally enamored of the play, and it won Baker an Obie as well as the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.

But it was not without its detractors. Baker purposely wrote a play without traditional theatrical action, where characters are revealed through menial, everyday activities ("walking and sweeping and mopping and dust-pan banging," according to Baker) and by what they don't say as much as what they do. She wrote about characters -- regular old people -- she felt are often left out of American theater, and she let The Flick spool out in its own time, which was about three hours. With the combination of length, languid pace and frequent silences, some Playwrights Horizons' patrons complained, walked out at intermission and threatened to cancel their subscriptions. And then Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director Tim Sanford sent an email blast to all 3000 subscribers to explain why and how The Flick suited the new-play and playwright focused theater and why they were standing behind it even in the face of so much criticism. No apologies, just an explanation. Still, that's not something that happens every day.

Given all of that, the Pulitzer committee seems to be telling us that they are behind game-changers and boundary-breakers like Annie Baker and The Flick.

It is worth noting that the other two nominees for this year's Pulitzer were also created by female theater artists. Those runners-up were Madeleine George's The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, "a cleverly constructed play that uses several historical moments -- from the 1800s to the 2010s – to meditate on the technological advancements that bring people together and tear them apart," and the musical Fun Home, with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, which the Pulitzer site calls "a poignant musical adaptation of a graphic memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, exploring sexual identity amid complicated family constraints and relationships." Fun Home enjoyed a Public Theatre production that starred Tony Award-winner Michael Cerveris and three-time Tony Award-nominee Judy Kuhn.

Both The Flick and Fun Home made Playbill's list of possibilities for the Pulitzer, but Watson Intelligence, another Playwrights Horizons show, was perhaps less expected. In another interesting footnote, playwrights Lisa Kron and Madeleine George are a couple, married last year, meaning there are two Pulitzer citations in their household in 2014.

PS Classics has produced a cast recording for Fun Home if you're interested in revisiting or understanding its "shining clarity that lights up the night."

Monday, April 14, 2014

Hnath's CHRISTIANS Shows the Theatrical Side of Faith

From the moment the stage was revealed for Lucas Hnath's The Christians, a Humana Festival play set in Actors Theatre of Louisville's Pamela Brown Auditorium, it was obvious we were going to church.

Instead of a theatrical stage, this was an evangelical one, with pretty blue carpet rising in tiers, a choir at the back, a pulpit, a couple of screens showing off images of doves and blue skies, and a few posh chairs facing us, flanked by microphones. It was quite clearly the chancel of a prosperous mega-church. All it needed were the worship leaders. And in they marched.

One of them, Pastor Paul, took the mic, starting a sermon. That began the particular convention of this play, that we would hear almost everything -- dialogue, monologues, inner thoughts, even a dialogue tag or two -- through microphones. I can recall exactly two lines where a character dropped the mic. One involved a parishioner expressing distrust, and the other occurred when a rival preacher demonstrated his own vocal strength didn't require amplification.

But all that dialogue delivered from the altar plus the microphones translated to one thing: church as theatre. Pastor Paul is used to using his voice and his calm, comforting persona to bring in new parishioners and keep the old ones happy. Pastor Paul is playing a role.

As his church has grown, the pastor has done his best to keep the coffers full. But now, with their building fund debt paid off, he feels free to discuss a crisis of conscious. He doesn't believe in hell anymore. That's a huge deal for this particular church and a huge betrayal for some of his parishioners. Those debates, those faith-based conflicts, are played out in the same way, as if they were announced right there in church, in front of God and everybody.

To Hnath's credit, he doesn't stack the deck. Each side gets its due and its arguments on the central issue. How do caring people who believe that Jesus is the one path to Heaven deal with the innocents in other cultures and other faiths who are then consigned to the fires of Hell as non-believers?

If this is an issue that has never occurred to you before, The Christians may be an eye-opener, an impassioned debate, a revelation as to what happens to one man when a crack appears in the foundation of his life built on faith. His ambitious assistant pastor is the first to go. Members of the congregation follow. The church's leadership is wavering. And the pastor's wife, a woman of faith, is beginning to wonder where her greatest loyalty lies.

Faith vs. love. Faith vs. ambition. Faith vs. humanity. As the pastor grapples with what he believes and why he believes it, as well as just how much he's willing to lose in the name of his newly found religious convictions, The Christians becomes more than an academic exercise. As the pastor in the center of The Christians, Andrew Garman is very strong and smooth, and his conversations with his wife, played by Linda Powell, who is silent for a good, long time, are some of the most affecting in the play.

The idea of casting religion in theatrical garb certainly makes it point about the artifice, the decorations and finery that decorate and amplify churches to make them palatable to the public, and the various conflicts are well articulated. Still, the way this play is staged -- with people either just sitting or standing around the altar and talking mostly to us instead of each other -- tends to create the very distance Pastor Paul says he feels.

In the end, The Christians sets up some impossible but compelling questions, but few answers. But isn't that the way of faith?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Funny and Fizzy CHAPERONE at IWU

If you grew up with a love for musicals even though you were in no position to actually see them on stage, you'll understand Man in Chair, the narrator in The Drowsy Chaperone. He sits alone in his apartment, listening to his beloved cast recordings of shows he never saw, conjuring up the entire shows in the living room of his imagination.

The show Man in Chair is creating for us is, not surprisingly, also called The Drowsy Chaperone. The musical inside the musical involves a house full of people getting ready for a wedding. It seems that Broadway sensation Janet Van de Graaf is quitting the stage to marry rich, handsome Robert Martin, although producer Feldzieg (Ziegfeld backwards, get it?) knows he'll be ruined if his big star decamps. That brings in various people trying to keep the wedding going or break it up, including an anxious best man, the flighty lady who owns the house and her butler, a pair of gangsters dressed as bakers, a Latin lover intent on seducing the bride, and, of course, her chaperone, who is generally more what I would call soused than drowsy.

There are in-jokes for fans of stage musicals of the 20s, like a throwaway bit about "Ukulele Lil," supposedly the stage name of the actress playing Mrs. Tottendale. Ukulele Lil sounds a lot like Ukelele Ike, AKA Cliff Edwards, who did his specialty ukulele numbers in musicals like Lady Be Good before becoming the voice of Jiminy Cricket. And in telling you that, I sound a lot like Man in Chair, who pops up as the show proceeds to fill in the blanks on the forgotten performers who populate The Drowsy Chaperone's show-within-the-show.

There's also the over-the-top Lothario, the character called Aldolpho (he has a whole song about his name) supposedly played by an actor named Roman Bartelli who specialized in playing ladies' men with heavy accents. The accent and general demeanor are reminiscent of Erik Rhodes, who played Tonetti -- a hired co-respondent with a personal motto in the neighborhood of "Your wife she is safe with Tonetti, he prefer spaghetti" -- in Gay Divorce on Broadway and The Gay Divorcee on film.

All of that means that The Drowsy Chaperone is a gold-mine for fans of old musicals. It's also a lot of fun for people who don't know anything about that sort of thing, however, with its sunny, silly production numbers and fizzy performances.

Illinois Wesleyan director Thomas Quinn and his musical director, Sandy DeAthos-Meers keep the music coming and sounding delightful throughout their Drowsy Chaperone, with especially good vocals from Marek Zurowski as the groom inside Chaperone. He gets to roller skate and tap dance, too, and he does a fine job all around.

Jenna Haimes also stands out as the chaperone, the one who drinks too much but always manages to belt out an uplifting anthem somewhere or other, and she has an excellent comedy partner in Jordan Lipes, who has higher hair than Elvis as the ridiculous Aldolpho.

Erica Werner's Janet van de Graaff is brassy and fun, and she sounds great on her second-act torch song about putting a monkey on a pedestal. (Yes, The Drowsy Chaperone has a number about monkeys.)

Others with good contributions include Steven Czajkowski and Nick Giambone as the two gangsters with a "Toledo Surprise," Will Henke as bouncy best man George, and Halimah Nurullah as Trix the Aviatrix, who is sort of a deus ex machina in an airplane.

In the end, however, every Drowsy Chaperone depends on its Man in Chair. He's the one who runs the show. He's the one who gives it a heart and makes it amount to more than just a spoof of 20s musicals. For IWU, Elliott Plowman, gives us a sweet and dippy version of Man in Chair, someone with a frantic edge and a definite temper. He has the audience pulling for him and his musical, and that's what counts by the time we get to the "Finale Ultimo."

Music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar

McPherson Theatre
Illinois Wesleyan University

Director: Thomas A. Quinn
Set Designer: Curtis C. Trout
Costume Coordinatorr: Marcia K. McDonald
Lighting Designer: Matthew W. Hohlmann
Sound Designer: Carlos Medina Maldonado
Music Direction/Conductor: Saundra DeAthos-Meers
Choreographer: Jessica Riss-Waltrip

Cast: Elizabeth Albers, Kelsey Bearman, Julia Cicchino, Steven Czajkowski, Nick Giambrone, Jenna Haimes, Will Henke, Jordan Lipes, Chris Long, Halimah Nurullah, Elliott Plowman, Heather Priedhorsky, Ian Scarlato, Ian Stewart, Adam Walleser, Erica Werner and Marek Zurowski.

Running time: 2 hours, with one 10-minute intermission

Remaining performances: April 12 at 8 pm and April 13 at 2 pm.

For more information or to make reservations, click here.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Probing PARTNERS at Humana Festival

The word partners carries a lot of weight if you think about it. We call romantically involved people partners, gay, straight, married or otherwise. We call people who put a business together or dance together or play cards together or write a book together or take their act on the road together partners. But what does that mean in terms of the basic qualities -- loyalty, honesty, trust, support -- we expect from a true partner?

Those are some of the things Dorothy Fortenberry investigates in her play Partners, one of this year's selections at the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Fortenberry is mostly interested in domestic partners -- one married straight couple, one unmarried gay couple -- and how their choices at home echo through another partnership, a longtime friendship between the straight wife and one of the gay men.

Clare, who went to culinary school and has a real talent for things like fig foam and teeny tiny pork belly bits on a cracker, has been besties with Ezra for absolute ever. Ezra has a plan to launch a food truck based on Clare's recipes and his entrepreneurial ideas. But Clare has been missing meetings, dragging her feet on the video Ezra needs to sell their idea to potential backers, and in general, letting Ezra down.

Clare is much more eager to talk about Ezra marrying his boyfriend Brady than she is to talk about the food truck. She also seems much more invested in their relationship than her own with her husband, Paul, an IT guy for a law firm who we're told doesn't pull in much money. Clare's own job arranging food for photos is also not lucrative, meaning she and Paul are not exactly living high on the pork belly.

Over in the other household, Ezra temps here and there and Brady teaches at a school with disadvantaged children, a job that's is more rewarding than remunerative, even though his wealthy parents do help out now and again.

All of this sets up the first of Fortenberry's major focuses, which is money and how we share it with our partners. Who pays for whom? Who owes whom? Paul's modest salary keeps his life with Clare afloat, but when Clare gets a financial windfall, she isn't all that into sharing the news or the money with Paul. Ezra wants Clare and Paul to kick in some cash for the food truck or at least lend him a credit card. Brady's parents don't want to subsidize Ezra. And Ezra doesn't want to marry Brady just to get the health insurance he otherwise can't afford.

The other elephant in the room is sex. Or lack of it. Clare is fascinated by what she imagines of Ezra and Brady's hot life, while we find out late in the play that her romantic life with her husband leaves a lot to be desired. Meanwhile, back in Brady-and-Ezra-ville, when marriage is put on the table, issues of monogamy and fidelity serve as a major obstacles toward wedded bliss.

And then there's the bigger issue: When it comes to sex, money and how we support a partner financially and emotionally, how do we know and articulate what we really want?

There are some interesting ideas floating around in Partners and all three relationships (Clare/Paul, Ezra/Brady and Clare/Ezra) have their moments of clarity and conflict in director Lila Neugebauer's Actors Theatre of Louisville production. But I found myself wishing Clare had been written with the sparks of charm and reason the male characters get. We see and hear about her acne, the medical woes in her past, her lies of omission and some serious self-sabotage. No matter how many times Ezra tells us that Clare is too adorable to be mad at, she comes off miserable, dishonest, and a little whiny instead. I wanted Ezra and Paul to hold her accountable for her passive aggressive ways and unwillingness to step up and tell the truth. Neugebauer is working with an actress, Annie Purcell, who really is kind of adorable, but the way Fortenberry's script treats Clare undermines the actress's personal charm.

In contrast, the Ezra we see is a lot of fun, if sometimes maddeningly unable to read people, and Kasey Mahaffy navigates the tricky bits nicely, especially as the conflict in his relationships escalates. The two partners -- Clare's husband Paul and Ezra's boyfriend Brady -- come off quite well throughout, with a strong performance from David Ross that makes Paul seem forthright and complicated in all the rights ways and good work from LeRoy McClain that gives some heft to Brady's life and opinions.

In the end, Partners looked beautiful, with a sleek set from Daniel Zimmerman that framed the action on the ground and in the air, but seemed a bit unformed or overstuffed as it played out. Why did these two marry each other? Why did these two move in and hook their lives together? And why in the world did these two stay friends so long?

Those are not questions Partners deals with. They're just the ones that nagged at me.

David Ian Lee: The Fun Ride in PERICLES

With The Exonerated just concluded and Mrs. Packard running right now in the Center for the Performing Arts at Illinois State University, ISU's Department of Theatre and Dance has been very busy. Next up: Pericles, the roving Shakespearean (or maybe Shakespearean -- more about that later) adventure play about a man named Pericles who finds himself up and down, lost and found, as he travels through a wild world of possibilities and drama. Second-year MFA directing candidate David Ian Lee is navigating the stormy seas of this Pericles, and I posed a few questions to Lee to see what I could expect from his version of this journey.

As a director, what attracts you to material like Pericles? At its heart, what do you think this play is about? 

Pericles tells the story of a charming, roguish prince who sails from kingdom to kingdom, pursuing adventure and wooing princesses. He’s a bit of a narcissistic twit, who along the way is humbled, falls in love, and becomes a father. And that’s when Fortune chooses to take from Pericles all that he holds dear. This is a story about growing up. It’s about dads and their kids, and that’s what makes it personal for me. Our play is about how children may redeem their parents, and about the responsibility each of us bears for one another. But, also: There are pirates and prostitutes and shipwrecks and swordfights! There’s birth, death, and a couple of rebirths. There’s magic. This is a story set "once upon a time," with all the fun and adventure of an Indiana Jones movie.

Pericles is not among the most familiar or most frequently performed of Shakespeare plays. There are also different theories about how much of the play, if any of it, Shakespeare wrote. Does any of that make a difference in how you approach directing it?

Scholarship suggests that Shakespeare collaborated with the English dramatist George Wilkins on Pericles; we joke in the room that Shakespeare wrote the middle acts, and that Wilkins worked on the (trickier, more erratic) first and final acts. The truth, of course, is that what we recognize as “Shakespeare’s plays” come to us by way of four-hundred years of editing and revision. But we’ve approached the piece the same way we would any other play: How do we best tell this story?

David Ian Lee, director of ISU's Pericles
As written, Pericles is set in ancient times in lands and seas around Greece and Phoenicia, but It's interesting that the modern versions of the places Pericles visits would be in Turkey, Libya and Lebanon. How does the setting inform your production? What are you doing with the period of the play?

There seem to be two prevailing aesthetic preferences when staging Shakespeare today: "In the period" -- which loosely translates as "about 1600ish" – or in a place or time that creates a metaphoric framework for the show, and that’s how we get post-apocalyptic King Lears or Romeo & Juliets set during the American Civil War. We went in a different direction. Our design team created the six different cultures of the play "from the ground up," imagining a fantastical realm of antiquity. Shakespeare traded in cultural appropriation, to be sure, so we didn't concern ourselves with "What would an Antiochian or a Pentapolean look like?" but rather "How would an Elizabethan audience member have received these various exotic cultures, and how do we create worlds that achieve the same effects?" It’s an exciting experiment, and the results are evocative and unique!

This will be your second show in a row (after last semester's Angels in America: Perestroika, performed in ISU's Centennial West 207) where you will be working with the journey and scope of a huge, epic play. This time you have a bit more space in Westhoff, but what do you do as a director to bring alive the scope of an epic play in a small space?

This play brings a whole heap of challenges: Swordfights, dances, songs, music, dumbshows, sailing sequences, mystical sequences… There’s a lot of stuff in Pericles! What’s wonderful about the play as a celebration of theatre is that all the spectacle is in the service of telling the story of a human being. I think that connects Angels and Pericles; both tell big stories that play across epic landscapes, but the plays focus on people in locked combat with forces seemingly greater than they. That’s something I’m drawn to: We are such fragile, imperfect things, but we are capable of grace and greatness.

Finally, what would you like audiences to know before they come to see your PERICLES? What should they expect? 

I love Shakespeare in performance because of the opportunities for audience utilization and interaction. I once took a master class with John Barton, who described the experience of playing Shakespeare as being alone with three hundred of your closest friends. We’ve no "fourth wall" in our production, so we’ll talk to you, but we may also touch or climb on you. Pericles makes for a fun ride!

Thanks, David!

Pericles will be in performance at Westhoff Theatre from April 17 to 26. For information, click here or here.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Weighing a Life in brownsville song (b-side for tray)

One of the best things about the Humana Festival of New American Plays, held annually at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, is the mix of works presented. There's almost always something a little (or a lot) out there, something crazy, something sad, something sweet... And something more traditional.

This year, even though playwright Kimber Lee has given her play brownsville song (b-side for tray) an unusual title and even though the structure of the play is nonlinear and fragmented, brownsville still plays like a traditional, heartfelt, earnest piece of American theater.

It starts at the end, with a grandmother who does not want to talk about the loss of her grandson, Tray, lost to stupid, tragic violence on the streets in Brooklyn. The actions plays out in short, overlapping scenes from now and then that show us who Tray was, who was important in his life -- his little sister; the grandmother who has mostly raised the two of them; and Tray's one-time stepmother, re-entering their lives after she fell off the deep end but has tried to reclaim herself -- and the hole he's left behind. We understand that it's a tragedy that Tray is gone and we root for these conflicted, interesting people to find a way.

But brownsville never really rises above the issues presented. We are told early on that Tray is not just some statistic, one more name on the list of kids lost in America's inner-city wars. His grandmother argues that he was different, he was special, he was not just one more like all the other faceless, nameless victims. As embodied by John Clarence Stewart, Tray is charming, vibrant and alive. And in that, this story succeeds in telling us that his death was as wrong as wrong can be. 

Actors Theatre Associate Artistic Director Meredith McDonought directs, eliciting fine performances from her entire cast. Cherene Snow effectively etches the grief and anger fueling Lena, the grandmother who wants Tray to be remembered, while 10-year-old Sally Diallo is adorable as Devine, the little girl who keeps getting left behind by the adults in her life. Jackie Chang does good work with the difficult role of Tray's former stepmother, but who exactly she was to Tray is unclear for much of the play, and her appearances seem coincidental and forced at times. 

And in the end... brownsville song doesn't sing. The play is earnest. Its heart is most definitely in the right place. It makes its case that random violence is tragic and terrible. But the scenes Lee has written don't build intensity or make a case for Tray beyond "just another kid," the very thing it set out to do. Yes, he was a great kid. Yes, he had a bright future. But how is that different from the others, the ones whose names we don't know? Lee's script doesn't gives us that spark.

Dane Laffrey's set, with sliding panels and moving pieces that fill all of the stage (and some offstage) spaces at the Pamela Brown Auditorium, Actors Theatre's biggest space, is slick and smooth in terms of transitions, but its size and mechanics create a certain distance from the audience, another reason brownsville doesn't make the emotional impact it's trying to achieve.

In the end, it's easy to understand the heartbreak in brownsville song (b-side for tray) but hard to truly give it your heart.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

April Showers Us with Entertainment

April is certainly being generous with the showers so far. Luckily, it's also loaded with entertainment choices. I suggest you get out of the rain and get into a theater forthwith. As it happens, I will be spending my weekend at Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays, and I will report back on everything I see there next week. Meanwhile, back in Central Illinois...

Illinois State University's production of The Exonerated, the sharp piece of documentary theater by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen about eight people wrongfully sent to death row, is officially sold out through the end of its run this weekend. But you can always try to get on the wait list through the ISU Center for the Performing Arts box office. The Exonerated benefits from a terrific production brought to life by director Cyndee Brown and a committed cast. Let's just say it's worth the wait list.

Also continuing through this weekend is New Route Theatre's Gidion's Knot, a new play by Johnna Adams. A parent, played for New Route by Gabrielle Lott-Rogers, confronts the teacher, played by Kathleen Kirk, who suspended her son, raising issues of discipline versus free expression, conformity versus eccentricity, and, of course, the balance between parenting and teaching when it comes to controlling  -- or not controlling -- our kids. Because the play is set in a classroom, director Don Shandrow has placed his production in one, too. That classroom is in the Mt. Moriah Christian Church on Washington Street in Bloomington. For all the details, click here to see New Route's Facebook page for the event.

Emily Mann's Mrs. Packard, another ISU production about wrongful incarceration, opens tomorrow night with the first of eight performances in the Center for the Performing Arts. Like The Exonerated, Mrs. Packard is based on real events and real people, although in this play, the title character is not sent to prison, but to a mental hospital. . The real Elizabeth Packard was shut away in an asylum in Jacksonville, Illinois in 1860 when her vindictive husband decided her political views were dangerous. Emily Mann (Execution of Justice) not only wrote Mrs. Packard; she directed its world premiere at the McCarter Theatre, where she is the artistic director. Third-year MFA directing candidate Vanessa Stalling, who did The Maids and A Midsummer Night's Dream last year, is at the helm for ISU.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is getting some TV commercials right now, giving you a hint of what this "filigreed toy box of a movie," as Peter Travers called it in his Rolling Stone review, is all about. He went on to say the movie is "so delicious-looking you may want to lick the screen." Licking the screen or not, there's a lot to be attracted to in The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is making believers out of even the anti-Wes Anderson crowd. In this one, Anderson concocts a beautiful trifle of a story, set in a European hotel over decades of its life, with eccentric characters, gorgeous art direction, and a lighter-than-air plot that may just waltz away with  your heart and any early 20th century romantic notions you're carrying. Although The Grand Budapest Hotel isn't playing in Bloomington-Normal, it is in Champaign, where the Art Theater Co-op has screenings scheduled through April 10.

Illinois Wesleyan Theatre gets back in the game with The Drowsy Chaperone, the fizzy little musical about a man who lives through his cast recordings. As our "Man in Chair" opens the show, he puts a record (yes, an actual vinyl record) from his favorite 1920s Broadway musical on the turntable and the show suddenly comes alive, with its entire tap-dancing, plate-spinning, ditty-singing, roller-skating, airplane-flying cast right there in his walk-up apartment. In the right hands, The Drowsy Chaperone is delightful. Director Tom Quinn is banking on Elliott Plowman as his "Man in Chair," Erica Werner as Janet Van De Graaff, the show-off Broadway star/bride-to-be in the show within the show, Marek Zurowski as her intended groom and Jenna Haimes as the chaperone in the title. The Drowsy Chaperone plays in IWU's McPherson Theatre from April 8 to 13.

Eureka College's production of the musical Godspell opens April 9. The pop/rock/folk/gospel score for this quintessential 70s musical about Jesus and his apostles was composed by Stephen Schwartz, now better known for Wicked. That score included the song "Day by Day," which broke out as a hit single. Godspell started at Carnegie Mellon University and then played LaMaa off-Broadway. By 1972, it had hit Canada, where its cast included Victor Garber, who would play Jesus in the movie version, as well, along with a host of names from Second City Toronto, like Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin. I saw the show in Chicago when I was in high school, with Joe Mantegna as Judas. Chip Joyce is directing and choreographing for Eureka College and the always excellent Joel Shoemaker, a Eureka alum, is part of the cast. Tickets are $5 for performances through April 13. Click here for all the details.

Iron, Rona Munro's gripping drama about a woman in prison and the daughter who tries to reconnect, opens at Heartland Theatre on April 17. Munro is a Scottish playwright who has a way with emotional tension and human fallout in her plays. In this one, Munro is exploring how we hurt each other and yet still keep reaching out to connect. Christopher Connelly, recently named Heartland's new artistic director, directs Lori Adams as Fay, who is in jail for killing her husband, while Alyssa Ratkovich plays opposite as her daughter Josie. Ashley Donahue and Marcus Smith check in as the two guards who rule Fay's world. Performances of Iron will continue through May 4, and you can get show times and reservation information at the Heartland website.

Also on the 17th, director David Ian Lee and his cast bring Shakespeare's Pericles to ISU's Westhoff Theatre. Storm-tossed Pericles, Prince of Tyre, loses and finds his wife and his daughter (named Marina because she was born at sea) as he wanders through dangerous waters and even more dangerous lands ruled by evil people of various stripes. There's incest, attempted murder, a very bad riddle, pirates, sailors, kings, a bordello and a virgin, pulled together by a narrator named Gower. In the cast list posted last fall, grad student Faith Servant was slated to play Gower, with another MFA actor, Ronald Roman, as Pericles, Molly Briggs as Thaisa, his wife, and Andrea Williams as daughter Marina. Pericles will take its voyages at Westhoff from April 17 to 26, and, as always, tickets are available through the CPA box office.

Just after Iron opens, Heartland will hold auditions for its annual (and very popular) 10-Minute Play Festival on April 21 and 22 from 7 to 9 pm. Winners were announced April 1, and they include Joe Strupek of Bloomington-Normal, whose play The Decoy involves a wooden duck. Each of the eight winning Fowl Plays involves a bird of some sort, from a small bird in a box in Blaise Miller's Bird on a Ferry to a man who thinks he used to be an owl in Whoooo? by Russell Weeks, a woman pretending to be a parrot in Ron Burch's Polly, crows on paper as drawn by a child in The Murder of Crows by Nancy Halper, crows made of paper in Claire BonEnfant's The Caw-Caw Conspiracy, a pair of eagles that may break up a couple in Tim West's Two in the Bush and a beautiful bird in the park that may bring two artistic women together in Fly Girl Fly by Brigitte Viellieu-Davis. There are some 23 roles available in these eight plays, with all age ranges invited to audition.

If you enjoyed Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities at Heartland Theatre earlier this year and you'd like to compare/contrast with another production, or if you missed that one and you'd like to catch up, you might want to try the Station Theatre in Urbana, where Kay Bohannon Holley directs the piece in performance from April 24 to May 10. Her version of the wealthy Wyeth family of Palm Springs features Carolyn Kodes-Atkinson and Steven M. Keen as matriarch and patriarch Polly and Lyman Wyeth, Joi Hoffsommer as Polly's sister Silda, and Kate Riley and Joel Higgins as Brooke and Tripp, Polly and Lyman's conflicted daughter and son. It's when Brooke comes home with a tell-all book that things start to get interesting Chez Wyeth.

The Normal Theater begins a salute to Harold Ramis, the actor/writer/director/all-around great guy who passed in February, with one of his best movies. Groundhog Day, wherein Bill Murray relives one day of his life again and again, is on screen at the Normal Theater on April 24 and 25, followed by another Ramis/Murray collaboration, the army buddy comedy Stripes, on the 26th and 27th. They're both worth a look as a reminder of the genius of Harold Ramis, a fantastic writer, a brilliant director and an Illinois boy done good who left us much too soon.

And if all of that's not enough to keep you busy in April, I don't know what is!