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!


  1. You folks have so much good stuff there! I'm always up for seeing "Groundhog Day" again, but the one that really flips my switch is "Pericles." Several commentators I've read lately have been in agreement that, although "Pericles" doesn't get much respect for the quality of its text (and is considered by some to be a collaboration), it always seems to play well and provide a good time in the theater. It's a picaresque adventure story unlike anything else Shakespeare wrote, hopping all over the eastern Mediterranean over 20 years or so, and ending with one of those touching father-daughter reunions after she was thought to be lost -- as in those other late romances, "Winter's Tale" and "Cymbeline."

  2. The poster for Pericles makes it look really attractive, too. I've seen a so-so production and a really good one, with all kinds of imaginative staging to handle the shipwrecks and the ocean and the different places Pericles traveled through. With imagination, it can be very entertaining.