Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Queen Rules: ELIZABETH REX at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Thomas Quinn as Shakespeare and Deborah Staples as Elizabeth in Elizabeth Rex
Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex serves as the linchpin for this summer's Illinois Shakespeare Festival, with the other two choices -- Much Ado About Nothing and Antony and Cleopatra -- revolving around this Shakespeare-centric but not Shakespeare-written play. Festival Artistic Director Kevin Rich's plan includes using the actors who play Elizabeth Rex's characters to people the other two plays, with Deborah Staples playing Elizabeth the queen as well as Cleopatra the queen, and Christopher Prentice taking on both Ned Lowenscroft, the actor who plays Beatrice in Elizabeth Rex's backstage world, and Beatrice herself in the full production of Much Ado. It's a clever conceit, interweaving threads from all three plays about the nature of power and the nature of gender.

Findley was a well-known and very well-regarded Canadian novelist and playwright with two Governor's General awards to his credit, one for a novel called The Wars in 1977 and one for the play Elizabeth Rex in 2000. Like much of Findley's work, Elizabeth Rex takes a look at issues of sexuality and gender, as he imagined Queen Elizabeth visiting Shakespeare and his troupe after a performance of Much Ado About Nothing, intending to distract herself from the imminent execution of her former favorite, the Earl of Essex, for plotting to overthrow her. While biding her time with the playwright and his actors, Elizabeth muses on who she is and why she is what she is, sparring a bit with Ned, someone who has made a career of playing Shakespeare's female characters. He is a man who is very adept at playing women, while Elizabeth is a woman who has had to suppress the feminine parts of herself in order to rule England. And they've both had rather disastrous love affairs with tempestuous men.

The script of Elizabeth Rex provides fascinating characters -- deeply written, deeply flawed -- for actors to sink their teeth into. The Illinois Shakespeare Festival cast, under the director of Paula Suozzi, offers strong, intelligent portrayals of the various personalities that make up Shakespeare's troupe. They are lead by Deborah Staples, a standout whenever she's on stage. Staples gives us an Elizabeth who is regal and fierce tempered by serious doubts and some measure of sadness at what she's had to give up to be where she is. Staples is sharp, flinty and magnificent.

In some ways, Prentice has been handed a more modern character to play. His Ned, who once loved a military man and now is very ill because of it, would not be out of place in 20th century works about gay men whose sex lives came with a high price. He knows that life is unfair, that his own days are fleeting, but he isn't going out without a fight. Prentice does well with the jagged edges and mood shifts of this dangerous man, someone who is admired and loved when he exhibits the feminine part of himself on stage, but reviled when he shows it in his personal life.

Others in the cast who shine include Thomas Anthony Quinn, whose Shakespeare is reflective and wise, but also unsure and creatively stymied at times, with a fully drawn portrait of a quick mind and a quick wit; Norman Moses, who couldn't be more delightful or more engaging as an older member of the troupe, someone who is reduced to playing the clown whether he wants to or not; Natalie Blackman, doing fine work as batty costume mistress Tardy; Cyndee Brown offering the very picture of an aging aristocrat as Elizabeth's lady-in-waiting Henslowe; and Ian Scarlato, who manages to create a full and sympathetic character from inside a massive bear suit.

When I saw Elizabeth Rex at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2012, I brought up the idea of playing it in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing and Antony and Cleopatra, since those two plays are discussed so often in the script, but also with The Winter's Tale, to give the bear more to do. Now I've decided that someone needs to write a play just for the bear, to really give him a showcase. Shakespeare is gone and Findley is gone, but... Maybe Tom Stoppard would like to fashion an existential tale around what the bear was up to when he wasn't chasing wayward people around Bohemia.

By Timothy Findley

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
at Ewing Cultural Center

Director: Paula Suozzi
Costume Designer: Lauren Lowell
Scenic Designer: Kristin Ellert
Lighting Designer: Sarah EC Maines
Music Director/Composer: Shannon O'Neill
Stage Manager: Andrew Blevins

Cast: Deborah Staples, Christopher Prentice, Thomas Anthony Quinn, Matt Daniels, Norman Moses, Fredric Stone, Natalie Blackman, Colin Lawrence, Jack Dwyer, Ron Roman, Faith Servant, Cyndee Brown, Timuchin Aker, Ian Scarlato, Michael Pine, Robert Michael Johnson, Joey Banks, Wigasi Brant, Bethany Hart, Colin Trevino-Odell, Phillip Ray Guevara.

Remaining performances: July 23, 26, 27 and 31; August 2, 6, and 8.

Running time: 2:30, with one 15-minute intermission.

For ticket information, click here.

Note: The Illinois Shakespeare Festival provided a press ticket for a preview performance of their production of Elizabeth Rex.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Bryan Cranston Going ALL THE WAY to HBO with Steven Spielberg

HBO Films will be bringing a bit more Broadway to our televisions with Robert Schenkkan's All the Way, the Tony, Drama Desk and Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award winning play. Bryan Cranston, who won the Tony as Best Actor for his performance as Lyndon Johnson in the Broadway production of the play, will also star for HBO.

Deadline reported last month that Steven Spielberg had optioned the play for a possible miniseries, and now they've confirmed that the project has landed at HBO, which recently scored a major hit -- and a lot of Emmy nominations -- with the televised version of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. That adaptation from stageplay to screenplay was made by the playwright, and All the Way will get the same treatment, with Schenkkan himself penning the adaptation. He has worked with Spielberg before, on the World War II miniseries The Pacific, which also aired on HBO.

All the Way was originally commissioned as part of the "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle" project at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Characters like Hubert Humphrey, J. Edgar Hoover and Martin Luther King, Jr. populate the landscape of the play, an exploration of how Lyndon Johnson came to power and how this "charismatic, conflicted Texan hurl[ed] himself into Civil Rights legislation, throwing the country into turmoil," as described by the ATCA judges when they decided the play was worthy of their top award. They called the play "an engrossing, epic" play and described Schenkkan's version of LBJ as "complex, obscene, brilliant and ruthless."

Before The Pacific or All the Way, Schenkkan had already shown he knew what to do with historical material -- he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Kentucky Cycle back in 1992.

On Broadway, All the Way featured University of Illinois alum Brandon Dirden as Martin Luther King Jr., Illinois State University alum Robert Petkoff as Hubert Humphrey, and This Is Spinal Tap alum Michael McKean as J. Edgar Hoover. No word yet on who will take the supporting roles for HBO, but it seems likely it will feature an all-star cast like the one in The Normal Heart. On Broadway, Joe Mantello played Ned Weeks, but that became Mark Ruffalo for the film, good-looking-in-a-regular-way John Benjamin Hickey turned into beautiful Matt Bomer, and Ellen Barkin's role was taken over by Julia Roberts, presumably for more box office appeal. Only TV star Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) kept his role from stage to screen. That means we might expect everybody except Bryan Cranston to be replaced with actors who have bigger names or more star wattage. David Oyelowo, Nelsan Ellis and Malik Yoba have played King recently, while Leonardo DiCaprio tried on J. Edgar Hoover for size not that long ago. Humphreys are harder to find. So let's just keep the Broadway cast, shall we?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

MUCH ADO or MUCH A-DUDE, That Is the Question

Men playing women in ISF's Much Ado
Choosing the most outrageous setting for your Shakespeare production has been all the rage for a while. You could see a post-apocalyptic, drug-addicted Hamlet who lived on the moon one night, A Midsummer Night's Dream with zombies in a swamp the next, and on the third, visit a banana republic Julius Caesar where Caesar bore a distinct resemblance to Juan Peron. These creative staging ideas were intended to make the plays more accessible to modern audiences who could immediately recognize what it meant if Twelfth Night's Andrew Aguecheek and Toby Belch looked like Laurel and Hardy or Katherina and Petruchio pulled out six-shooters in the Wild West.

The ideas are certainly creative, but when you see these productions, the basic question of whether it works remains. Is the setting a gimmick or does it actually illuminate something in the play?

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

More recently, a new fashion in Shakespeare has emerged. Instead of sending Hamlet into outer space, companies are picking up on "Original Practices," where they attempt to recreate Shakespeare's plays as they were actually performed in Shakespeare's time. The idea seems to be to strip away modern contrivances and get back to Shakespeare the way Shakespeare intended. But once again, the question remains. Does it work? Is it a gimmick or does it illuminate the play?

In this year's schedule of three mainstage plays at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director Kevin Rich handed Much Ado About Nothing over to director Jonathan West with an eye on examining and experimenting with some pieces of the Original Practices pie. That means that in performance, you'll find Elizabethan costumes, on-stage music and lights, actors speaking directly to the audience, pillars that look a bit like those at the resurrected Globe Theatre in London, and... An all-male cast.

This Much Ado goes with a Much A-Dude approach not only to adhere to Original Practices, but also to take advantage of playing in repertory with Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex, wherein the queen converses with members of Shakespeare's acting troupe, including the men who have just finished performing Much Ado for her. For the Illinois Shakespeare festival, the casts cross over between the two plays, with, for example, Christopher Prentice (seen below) taking both the role of the actor in Elizabeth Rex who plays Beatrice and Beatrice herself in Much Ado.

Christopher Prentice as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing
It's an interesting experiment to use that kind of cross-pollination and to see what happens when a man plays a character like Beatrice, who defies gender stereotypes and even talks about wanting to be a man so that she can throttle feckless Claudio. But... It also denies an actress the chance to play this particular role, one of Shakespeare's best and brightest women.

Director West has not gone for camp or over-the-top humor from the ungainly appearance of his "women," as you might experience in Tyler Perry movies or from other roles where men have famously played women, like Edna Turnblad in the musical Hairspray or even Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Instead, West's actors, including Prentice as Beatrice, Colin Lawrence as Hero, Jack Dwyer as Margaret and Colin Trevino-Odell as Ursula, play it straight for the most part.

Of the four men who cross gender lines, Colin Lawrence is the most successful at suggesting there is actually a female character in front of us. His Hero is sweet and giddy, with good energy and good humor.

But in the role of Beatrice, half of the central romance, Prentice doesn't really come alive. He has a commanding physical presence and projects intelligence and strength, but none of the spark or charm necessary to create a memorable Beatrice. He also doesn't show much chemistry with Matt Daniels, who is otherwise a fine Benedick. It's telling that Benedick's gulling scene -- where a trio of men pull a fast one on him while he eavesdrops -- plays much better than the parallel Beatrice gulling scene, which gets bogged down by the gender switch.

Joey Banks holds Norman Moses, as Dogberry, in his lap.
Luckily, Dogberry, the bumbling constable who accidentally catches the bad guys and saves the day, emerges as a definite highlight in this production. Norman Moses gives Dogberry a Wizard of Oz flourish and enough comic tricks to make every appearance a delight.

In the end, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival Much Ado About Nothing succeeds in looking different and raising questions about how and why we see Shakespeare as we see it. As a comedy, it also succeeds when Dogberry is on the scene. As a romantic comedy, however, it leaves a bit to be desired.

By William Shakespeare

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
at Ewing Cultural Center

Director: Jonathan West
Music Director/Composer: Shannon O'Neill
Costume Designer: Lauren Lowell
Scenic Designer: Kristin Ellert
Lighting Designer: Sarah Maines
Choreographer: Jean Kerr
Stage Manager: Jamie K. Fuller

Cast: Thomas Anthony Quinn, Matt Daniels, Michael Pine, Norman Moses, Todd Denning, Christopher Prentice, Colin Lawrence, Phillip Ray Guevara, Ron Roman, Joey Banks, Jack Dwyer, Colin Trevino-Odell, Fredric Stone, Timuchin Aker, Wigasi Bryant, Robert Michael Johnson, Adrienne Boni, Michelle Plunkett, Pamela Schuett.

Remaining performances: July 17, 19, 22, 25, 27 and 30; August 2, 3, 5, 7 and 9.

For ticket information, click here.

Note: The Illinois Shakespeare Festival provided a press ticket and asked me to review a preview performance of this production of  Much Ado About Nothing.

Monday, July 14, 2014

One Acts Take Center Stage in NEW PLAYS FROM THE HEARTLAND

Heartland Theatre began its life as a home for new works. Although that mission has changed over the years, Heartland still makes a place for brand-new plays, with a festival for 10-minute plays in June and a program of one-act plays in July. Both projects solicit scripts from playwrights and then select the cream of the crop for staging. The 10-Minute Play Festival, which just finished up its 13th year, accepts submissions from all over the world, with eight winning plays fully staged and performed on Heartland's stage. The New Plays from the Heartland, on the other hand, celebrate new work written by Midwestern authors. And Midwestern authors only!

When the New Plays from the Heartland have been sorted through, discussed and considered, only three winners emerge. This year, with the theme Escape, two winners hail from Illinois and one from Wisconsin, but their work covers a range of issues. There's a look at what represents escape and what represents a trap for a woman in the 1950, a philosophical musing on the nature of theatre, and a filmic piece about how a boy's life can be changed in the space of a summer when he leaves home to stay with his aunt. The plays are:

by Lori Matthews, Stoughton WI
It's 1950, and Harriet is smart, accomplished and committed to her future. The question is what that future should hold. Marriage, wealth, privilege? Or perhaps her life should be a bowl of cherries.

by Michael Leathers, Chatham IL
When two very different men come to the theater, they think they'll just take their seats and settle in for a show. But this is no ordinary theater...

by Pamela Lovell, Bloomington IL
For Josh, "escape" might be spending the summer with his aunt. For Aunt Julie, it might be living alone in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. For both of them, it might be finding a way to talk, to grow, to ride out the storm.

As a play development project, the plays are presented as staged readings, with actors performing with scripts in hand along with some props, costumes and set pieces. Director Don LaCasse has an acting troupe of eight that includes some of the area's best actors, with Colleen Longo, Katie McCarty, Danny Rice and Ann B. White appearing in Escape Plan, Nathan Bottorff and Rick Jensen in Merely Players, and Harrison Gordon and Cristen Monson in Alchemy.

Kathleen Kirk served as dramaturg for the project, shepherding the scripts from entry to performance, and she also worked with Scott Klavan, the New York playwright, director and actor who acted as the final judge this year. Klavan will meet with the three winning playwrights in a special workshop designed just for them, and he will also conduct a forum on playwriting at the theater on Thursday, July 17, at 7:30 pm. That forum is free and open to the public.

Performances of the New Plays from the Heartland will take place this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Heartland Theatre, with a 7:30 pm curtain on Friday and Saturday and a 2 pm matinee on Sunday. Since this is a special project and not a part of Heartland's subscription season, Flex Passes are not accepted, but tickets are priced at only $5 to make the project accessible to everyone. Reservations are a very good idea as some performances fill up quickly. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Emmy Nominations Go Big for THRONES and ORANGE, Ignore Maslany and GOOD WIFE

When the Television Academy announced nominations for acting, directing and related excellence in television last week, the hue and cry began immediately. Why no Tatiana Maslany? How in the world could the stellar year enjoyed by The Good Wife be overlooked when it came to a Best Drama nomination? Are Emmy voters officially out to lunch, up a creek, off the rails?

My answers? Not enough voters watch BBC America. There is no possible excuse. And yes.

Some of the craziness -- Downton Abbey gets a nod after a terrible season, while Good Wife doesn't, after one of the best seasons in the history of TV? Michele Dockery is nominated for looking wan and getting her Lady Mary duds dirty, but Tatiana Maslany is ignored when she plays an entire phalanx of clones, all with distinct and sharply etched personalities, on Orphan Black? Jeffrey Wright gets no love for his captivating work on Boardwalk Empire? Jeff Daniels again for the execrable Newsroom? Really? And so much love for Modern Family when it peaked a long time ago? -- is made a bit better by nominations for Good Wife's Josh Charles and Christine Baranski, Robert Morse from Mad Men, and Bob Newhart for his guest turn on The Big Bang Theory.

And then there's the fact that Orange Is the New Black, which racked up 12 nominations, is listed as a comedy series. Sure. Right there with Shameless, which earned nods for the very deserving William H. Macy in addition to the fabulous Joan Cusack. It's hard to be mad about that or the Orange adulation (I have loved Kate Mulgrew since Ryan's Hope) even if neither is really a comedy. Aside from Mulgrew, actresses Taylor Schilling, Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox and Natasha Lyonne were also recognized.

Other big winners include Game of Thrones, which leads the pack with 19 nominations for everything from its art direction to its hairstyles, with Peter Dinklage back on the list for supporting actor, along with supporting actress Lena Headey and guest actress Diana Rigg.

Over in the miniseries or TV movie category, the FX dark comedy Fargo made a big splash with 18 nominations. The two lead actors -- Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton -- are nominated along with supporting actor Colin Hanks and supporting actress Allison Tolman.

Like Fargo, American Horror Story: Coven may look more like a series than a miniseries, but it totaled 17 nominations, including nods for lead actresses Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson and supporting actresses Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates and Frances Conroy.

HBO's The Normal Heart also made an impact in the miniseries or movie arena, garnering 16 nominations. Lead actor Mark Ruffalo is nominated for his performance, as are supporting actors Matt Bomer, Joe Mantello, Alfred Molina and Jim Parsons. They were all wonderful, but it will be hard to beat Bomer, who was superb.

When the Emmy Awards air on August 25 on NBC, look for host Seth Myers to be rooting for pals Amy Poehler, nominated for her role on Parks and Recreation, and Tina Fey, nominated for best guest actress in a comedy for hosting Saturday Night Live.

To see the complete list of nominations, check out the Emmy website.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Penrod and Swiech Lead Prairie Fire's MY FAIR LADY

When My Fair Lady opens July 31, Joe Penrod and Jessie Swiech will once more be sharing a stage. Recently they've appeared as the head of the household and a lady's maid in A Little Night Music for Prairie Fire Theatre, and the head of the household and his daughter in Other Desert Cities for Heartland Theatre. This time out, Penrod will play Henry Higgins, the infamous professor who tries to turn a lowly little flower seller into a fine lady, while Swiech is Eliza Doolittle, the girl who gets caught up in Professor Higgins' makeover plan, in the Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady at Prairie Fire.

My Fair Lady ran for six years on Broadway from 1956 to 1962, with a cast that featured Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews when it opened. Higgins' songs include "Why Can't the English?" and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," while Eliza gets "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" and "I Could Have Danced All Night," as well as the spirited "Just You Wait" where she vents her frustrations with the professor.

For Prairie Fire, Todd Wineburner will take on Colonel Pickering, Higgins' friend and partner in the Pygmalion plan, while Rhys Lovell will both direct and play Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza's dad, who always has his eye on the main chance. Alfred P. is also the one who gets to sing "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church on Time," two of the biggest hits from the score.

Henry's mother will be played by Carolyn Stucky, with Nancy Nickerson as his long-suffering housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce. Chris Walburt will appear as Eliza's other suitor, sweet Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and he will be supported by Katie Henderson, who plays his mum.

Prairie Fire's My Fair Lady has a good-sized cast, with Ben Ambler, John Bowen, Lyndsay Byers, Bailey Combes, Jeff Courtright, Lauren Guttschow, Kinsey Hamra, Grace Henderson, Amy Humphreys, Rick Jensen, Bob Mangialardi and Claire Stucky in various roles.

Performances are scheduled for Illinois Wesleyan University's Westbrook Auditorium from July 31 to August 3, with Thursday, Friday and Saturday curtains at 7 pm and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 pm. Those times are a little different from most venues in Bloomington-Normal, so make a note and be sure to get yourself to the theater on time. Ticket prices range from $20 for adults down to $10 for students. Click here for all the details. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

MUCH ADO, ELIZ REX and ANTONY AND CLEO Bow This Week at IL Shakes Fest

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival has become a year-round entertainment option, what with a staged reading in April from the Shakespeare Project of Chicago and a Theatre for Young Audiences show -- this year Shake, Shake, Shake Your Shakespeare by Nancy Steele Brokaw -- that started in mid-June. But the real repertory begins tomorrow with previews of the three mainstage shows. These three preview nights offer 2-for-1 tickets, meaning you can score those platinum-plus seats you always wanted for half price if you can use two.

Michael Pine as Claudio in Much Ado
Much Ado About Nothing, the witty romantic comedy that pairs too-smart-for-their-own-good Beatrice and Benedick, is up first, previewing tomorrow at 7:30 pm and officially opening Friday, July 11, at 8 pm. This Much Ado is not the one you're used to from previous Festivals or from the Joss Whedon black-and-white movie that hit theaters last year. This Much Ado features an all-male cast. Why shut out the ladies? Illinois Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Kevin Rich is a proponent of something called "Original Practices," which tries to recapture the way Shakespeare shows were performed in Shakespeare's own time. The idea behind it is to open up Shakespeare, to make it quick and breezy and accessible to modern audiences, with the thrust stage, outdoor setting and fast finish time attributed to Elizabethan staging. So Much Ado About Nothing, as directed by Jonathan West for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, will take a bow in the direction of "Original Practices," with men playing both the male and female roles, just as you might've seen in Elizabethan England, a time when it was considered immoral for a woman to be on stage.

Given the fact that there are a limited number of roles in Shakespeare plays for women, anyway, I will admit I am not a fan of this all-male notion, especially when it means that a role like Beatrice -- witty, wonderful Beatrice -- is handed over to the guys. Sure, that's what Will himself would've expected, but we're here and now, when it isn't lascivious or lewd for a female to trod the boards. I'd prefer we take our cue from Abigail Adams instead of Queen Elizabeth I and "remember the ladies" when it comes to performing Shakespeare.

Deborah Staples as Elizabeth Rex
Much Ado's all-male cast is also influenced by the second show on the schedule, Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex, directed by Paula Suozzi, which previews July 9 at 7:30 pm and opens July 12 at 8 pm. Elizabeth Rex was written in 2000 and it has been well-performed since then, including a very good Chicago Shakespeare production in 2012. It's a perfect fit for a Shakespeare festival, given that Mr. Shakespeare and some of his actors are characters in the play. And the Illinois Shakespeare Festival has made that fit even tighter, using the plays that appear in Elizabeth Rex to form its repertory and pulling the actors from one cast into the others.

Elizabeth Rex begins with the end of a performance of Much Ado by the Lord Chamberlain's men, with Queen Elizabeth herself in attendance. After the performance, the actors retreat to a barn to rest. Queen Elizabeth joins them, in dire need of a distraction as she awaits the execution of a former favorite, the Earl of Essex, who tried to raise a revolt against her. The Shakespeare we see is in the midst of writing Antony and Cleopatra, and he takes note of who and what Elizabeth is to create the grand Egyptian queen of his imagination.

Deborah Staples and Todd Denning
And that is why Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Artistic Director Kevin Rich, is the third play gracing the stage at Ewing Manor this summer. A preview of Antony and Cleo is scheduled for Thursday, July 10th, with its official opening night set for Sunday the 13th. Both shows begin at 7:30 pm. Keeping the connections coming, the actress who plays Elizabeth  in Elizabeth Rex, Deborah Staples, will cross over to play the titular queen in Antony and Cleopatra, too.

Similarly, the actors we see finishing up Much Ado as Beatrice and Benedick in Elizabeth Rex will actually play Beatrice and Benedick in the full, all-male Much Ado About Nothing on other nights. Those actors are Christopher Prentice (Beatrice) and Matt Daniels (Benedick), and they'll showcase their versatility by taking on Alexas and Enobarbus in Antony and Cleo.

For all the details on all three shows, visit the Illinois Shakespeare Festival website. You'll find a printable calendar, ticket info, and the scoop on extra tours, talkbacks and greenshows, and lots more if you investigate the Festival site.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

American Blues Theater's Blue Ink Playwriting Contest Is Now Open

American Blues Theater, the second-oldest Equity ensemble theater in Chicago, has opened its annual Blue Ink playwriting competition as of July 1. From now till September 1, you can enter your full-length play with the hopes of nabbing a $1000 prize and a staged reading at American Blues Theater. The theater leaves open the possibility of a full production, as well, with a "Right of First Refusal" option built into the rules.

Although no theme is listed for this competition, note that American Blues Theater's mission is to illuminate "the American ideas of freedom, equality, and opportunity in the plays we produce and communities we serve." Founded in 1986 as a blue-collar theater, American Blues wandered away from that goal a bit over the years, but reformed under its original name and recommitted itself to its working-class roots in 2009. Producing Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside kept the ensemble’s mission statement and 25-year commitment to new work and community outreach front and center when she implemented the Blue Ink Playwriting Award and new community service initiatives. Since the theater reformed, they have put into practice the mandate that each production partner with social and service organizations to raise awareness and support.

Click here to see the complete guidelines for submissions for the Blue Ink prize. They include requirements that any play submitted be written in English, original, unpublished, and never before professionally produced.You may submit a word document or a pdf and you must include a $5 administrative fee.

American Blues Theater's current season -- its 29th -- is operating under the theme "Lost & Sound" and it includes the return of Hank Williams: Lost Highway from July 25 to August 31; a world premiere of Nambi E. Kelly's Native Son, adapted from the novel by Richard Wright, from September 11 to October 12; an American Blues original brought back to celebrate the holidays with It's a Wonderful Life (as a radio show performed live and in person) from November 21 to December 28;  the Chicago premiere of Steven Dietz's Yankee Tavern from February 20 to March 22, 2015; and Warren Leight's Side Man, about a jazz trumpeter and his son, from April 24 to May 24, 2015.

For more information on American Blues Theater or the Blue Ink Playwrighting Award, click on the links under their names.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Big July Auditions Post

Auditions are coming up for several different local productions, giving area actors, singer and dancers a chance to try out for brand new work, a recent off-Broadway play and a classic Broadway comedy. Read on for all the particulars and what you need to prepare (if anything) for the different shows.

July 12 at 11 am
Illinois State University's Cook Hall, Room 305 

About auditions: New Route Theatre is looking for 20 actors, singers and dancers -- 10 women and 10 men -- for their upcoming production of Walking with My Ancestors by Oforiwaa Aduonum. These performers will fill principal roles as well as form the ensemble, and they will be asked to act, sing, dance and move. Auditioners will be asked to perform a one-minute monologue, one minute of a song and one minute of choreography.

About the play: Dr. Aduonum is originally from Ghana, where former slave caves have been turned into a tourist attraction of sorts. When she visited those "holding dungeons," where kidnapped Africans were kept captive before they were packed onto ships bound for plantations on the other side of the world, Dr. Aduonum began an emotional and spiritual journey into her own past and the lives of her ancestors. She began "a creative conversation with the ghosts that have haunted not only those prisons but indeed the Middle Passage and everything that followed, right up to the present day." She tells the story of what became "a pilgrimage and a crusade, a search for identity, and an attempt to ask the questions that have no answers" through song, dance and the spoken word in Walking with My Ancestors. Contact Oforiwaa Aduonum at aburowdue@yahoo.com or 309-807-5133 for more information.

Performance Dates: November 6-9 and 13-16, 2014.

July 21 and 22 from 7:30 to 9:30 pm
Heartland Theatre

About auditions: Heartland Theatre Company
and director Kathleen Kirk are looking for 5 to 10 actors for their September production of The Language Archive by Julia Cho. Roles to be cast include:
GEORGE: A linguist. A man (30s or 40s). Goodhearted, wrapped up in his work, thus missing some relationship details. 
MARY: George’s wife. A woman (30s or 40s). Melancholy on the outside, radiant on the inside, needs a way to start again. 
EMMA: Lab assistant. A young woman (20s or 30s). Sensitive, helpful, loving. 
ALTA: An old(er) woman, from elsewhere. Feisty. 
RESTON: An old(er) man, from elsewhere. Alta’s husband. 
BAKER: An old(er) man, needs to shed a burden. 
LANGUAGE INSTRUCTOR: A woman of any age (ideally German). Honest. 
L.L. ZAMENHOF: A man, older language instructor, creator of Esperanto. 
TRAIN CONDUCTOR: A man or woman. 
No prepared monologues or scenes are necessary -- auditioners will be asked to read from the script. A limited number of copies of the script are available to be checked out at the Heartland box office.

About the play: George has devoted his life to lost languages, but he has lost track of the language of love in his own marriage. And now two highly anticipated visitors to his archive, the last speakers of a language on the verge of extinction, refuse to speak to each other. This “wryly beguiling new play” is about language, love and the lapses between the two. Email info@heartlandtheatre.org for more information.

Performance Dates: September 11-13, 18-21 and 25-28

July 28 and 29 from 7 to 9 pm
Community Players Theatre

About auditions:
 Community Players and director Patricia Stiller are looking for approximately 15 actors -- 9 men and 6 women -- for their production of The Philadelphia Story. Roles to be cast include members of the aristocratic Lord family (daughters Tracy and Dinah, mother and father Margaret and Seth, and tipsy Uncle Willy); dashing C. K. Dexter Haven, who used to be married to Tracy; groom-to-be George Kittredge; a couple of interlopers in the form of reporter Macauley Connor and photographer Liz Imbrie; and a variety of servants.

About the play: Philip Barry's romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story opened on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre in March 1939 and ran until March 1940. Both on stage and on screen, Katharine Hepburn played the lead role of Tracy Samantha Lord, a Philadelphia heiress and socialite who is preparing to marry "man of the people" George Kittredge. But in the days leading up to the wedding, Tracy must deal with her pesky ex-husband, C. K. Dexter Haven, as well as two reporters who are posing as family friends to get the inside scoop on this high society wedding.

Performance Dates: September 4-7 and 11-14, 2014.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Hazy Crazy July Has Shows Every Night

July just may be the hottest month of all for theater in Bloomington-Normal. It's everywhere! You'll find June shows, like You're a Good Man Charlie Brown at the Barn II, continuing into July, while pretty much every venue around starts hopping, from Community Players to the Connie Link Ampitheatre, Ewing Manor, Heartland Theatre, Illinois State University's Center for the Performing Arts, Miller Park, New Route's new space in Normal and Westbrook Auditorium on the Illinois Wesleyan campus. So pick up a pencil and take notes... On stages, screens and TV, it's a busy month!

The newly remastered version of the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night comes to both the Normal Theater (July 3-6) and the Art Theater Co-op in Champaign (July 4-5). Also airing at the Art on the 4th is Roman Polanski's post-noir Chinatown, frequently chosen as one of the best movies in cinema history, while the Roger Ebert memoir Life Itself comes to Ebert's old stomping grounds in Champaign-Urbana on the 11th.

If you've been waiting for the 2014 Illinois Shakespeare Festival to get going, wait no more. Previews of all three mainstage shows begin July 8, with official opening nights scheduled for July 11 for Much Ado About Nothing, July 12 for the non-Shakespeare but very, very related Elizabeth Rex by Timothy Findley, and July 13 for Antony and Cleopatra. The three plays are closely intertwined, as the action in Elizabeth Rex involves Will Shakespeare trying to pen Antony and Cleopatra in the same barn where his company of actors, fresh off a performance of Much Ado, congregates. For the Festival, artistic director Kevin Rich has chosen to multiply those connections, casting Deborah Staples, the actress who plays Queen Elizabeth, as Cleopatra, too, and using the members of the acting company from Elizabeth Rex who tell us they've just played Beatrice and Benedick and the others in Much Ado (all male, as they would've been in Shakespeare's day) to actually play those roles in a full performance of Much Ado. It's a neat little conceit, and it will play out at the theater on the ground of the Ewing Cultural Center from July 8 to August 9. Preview performances and limited Tuesday tickets are available at special prices, plus there is now a rush ticket option for those who like to be flexible. Check it all out at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival website.

The Improvised Shakespeare Company returns to the Festival, as well, with performances on July 19 and August. For tickets or information, click here.

Shrek the Musical opens at Community Players on July 10, with performances continuing through the 27th. This stage musical version of the animated Dreamworks movie tells the fractured fairytale story of an ogre named Shrek and his run-in with a princess named Fiona who is under a spell. He has to contend with a wisecracking donkey sidekick and a whole lot of crazy fairytale folk for any hope of a Happily Ever After. Jeanine Tesori composed the music for Shrek, while David Lindsay-Abaire contributed the lyrics and book. For Community Players, Alan Wilson directs Chris Terven as Shrek, Lisa Groves as Fiona and Matthew Henry as Donkey. For ticket info, click here.

At Normal Parks and Rec, it's time for the second musical of the summer outdoors at the Connie Link Amphitheatre. Oliver!, the musical version of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, will play two weekends in July. You have a choice of performances July 17-20 or 24-27, with a 7:30 pm start time.

Heartland Theatre puts its Mike Dobbins Memorial New Plays from the Heartland on stage on July 18, 19 and 20, at 7:30 pm on Friday and Saturday and 2 pm on Sunday. These New Plays are performed as staged readings, with actors carrying scripts in hand as they showcase brand-new works by Midwestern playwrights. Note the staged part of that staged reading moniker, however; you will see props, costumes and scenic pieces if you come out for the program. The three winning plays staged this summer are An Escape Plan for Women of a Certain Age by Lori Matthews of Stoughton, Wisconsin; Merely Players by Michael Leathers of Chatham, Illinois; and Alchemy by Pamela Devon Lovell of Bloomington. Don LaCasse directs the staged readings with a cast that includes Nathan Bottorff, Rick Jensen, Colleen Longo, Katie McCarty, Cristen Monson, Danny Rice and Ann B. White. The New Plays project includes a master class for the winning playwrights and an open forum for Heartland audiences conducted by Scott Klavan, a New York playwright, director and actor who brings a wealth of experience and expertise to the table. Klavan's forum, open to the public and free of charge, is scheduled for Thursday, July 17, at 7 pm at Heartland Theatre.

Kathleen Kirk acted as dramaturg for New Plays from the Heartland, and she returns to direct Julia Cho's lyrical and lovely The Language Archive at Heartland, in performance in September. Kirk will  hold auditions for The Language Archive from 7:30 to 9:30 pm on on July 21 and 22. Click here to see who Kirk is looking for and what the play is all about.

New Route Theatre has moved into a new space at 814 Jersey Avenue in Normal, and they're christening the place on July 22 with a reading of original works from the Word Weavers group. M. Irene Taylor directs Tapestries IV, a collection of poetry and prose by local writers. The pieces performed focus on "challenges faced by individuals in their everyday lives as well as the social issues of the day." And this year's performance will include an "open mic" option, with audience members invited to share their own work.

There are also a bunch of things starting summer seasons on television, like Masters of Sex and Ray Donovan launching second seasons July 13 on Showtime and Witches of East End coming back for season two on Lifetime starting July 6. The Halle Berry series Extant premieres on CBS on July 9, while Welcome to Sweden says hej to NBC on the 10th and The Lottery takes a spin on Lifetime on the 20th. Also on Lifetime, Project Runway stitches together its 13th season on July 24. And one of my favorite shows, the genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? begins its 5th season July 24 on TLC.

The Midwest Institute of Opera is offering a variety of options around George Bizet's Carmen at the end of the month. There's a concert version on the 26th, a special abbreviated Carmen on the 28th, and two fully staged performances, with one on the 27th and the other on the 29th. Joshua Greene of the Metropolitan Opera conducts, while James Marvel directs.

The Music Man marches its 76 trombones into Miller Park from July 26 to August 2. This Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts/Miller Park Summer Theatre production of Meredith Wilson's classic small-town musical features children from 8 to 17 getting into trouble, right there in River City.

And there's still space to squeeze one more show into July, when Prairie Fire Theatre opens My Fair Lady July 31 at IWU's Westbrook Auditorium, directed by Rhys Lovell and starring Joe Penrod as Henry Higgins. Performances continue through August 3. Penrod's Higgins will try to make over Jessie Swiech as Eliza Doolittle, with Todd Wineburner as his friend Colonel Pickering, Nancy Nickerson as his disapproving housekeeper, and Carolyn Stucky as his put-upon mum. Just you wait, Henry Higgins! July 31 will be here before you know it.