Monday, March 16, 2015

ISU 2015-16: From NYC to Chicago, From Troy to El Salvador and Never Never Land

It's that time! Spring for theaters -- even college theater departments -- means it's also time to put together schedules for the fall. For playwrights, it means lots of rejections (and maybe a few acceptance letters) in their mailboxes. For actors and designers, it means looking ahead to decide what they most want to work on.

In that spirit, as well as to give local audiences something to look forward to, Illinois State University has released their tentative schedule for fall 2015 and spring 2016. Although dates are not carved in stone, this is what the School of Theatre and Dance has planned:

Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs will open in late September in the Center for the Performing Arts. MFA directing candidate Jonathan Hunt-Sell, who just finished up his run of Moliere's School for Wives, will direct this warm comedy about a Jewish family living in Brooklyn in the 1930s, with son Eugene (based on Simon himself) dreaming of girls, baseball and a life not bound by his crazy relatives. Brighton Beach Memoirs is the first play of three Simon wrote about Eugene Jerome, moving on to his military years in Biloxi Blues and the beginnings of his comedy career in Broadway Bound. Brighton Beach originally starred Matthew Broderick as Eugene on Broadway. It's a sweet play, full of Depression-era atmosphere and eccentric characters, with good roles for both men and women.

The action moves from New York to Chicagoland in October with Grease, the 1950s musical with book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. This trip to Rydell High, with its hotrods, Pink Ladies and summer lovin', will be directed by Lori Adams. The stage musical, which played for 3388 performances in its first Broadway incarnation and then came back for 1500 more in the 90s, spawned the hugely successful movie with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. If you know all the words to "Beauty School Drop-Out" and "Greased Lightning" (and let's not kid ourselves -- who doesn't?), you will be first in line to see Grease at ISU's CPA.

Also in October, Duane Boutté will direct August Wilson's Fences, winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, in Westhoff Theatre. Like Grease, Fences is set in the 1950s. Like Brighton Beach Memoirs, it has a connection to baseball. More importantly, it's part of a larger collection of plays. Fences is the sixth decade Wilson dealt with in his century of plays about African-Americans trying to find their way in the United States. The original Broadway production starred James Earl Jones as Troy, now a garbage man, but once a promising baseball player before he was sent to prison for robbery.

That will be followed by The Trojan Women, a tragedy from Greek playwright Euripides that focuses on the horrific after-effects of war for the women left behind after their world has been destroyed. Their husbands, fathers and children are dead. Their homes are gone. And they face a future of grief, death, rape and slavery. Connie de Veer will direct Ellen McLaughlin's adaptation of The Trojan Women in Westhoff Theatre. McLaughlin, an actress best known for originating the role of the Angel in Angels in America, has come back to the Greeks again and again, with works like Iphigenia and Other Daughters, Helen, The Persians and Oedipus on her resume. Her Trojan Women has not made it to Broadway, although Gilbert Murray's translation played at the Cort Theatre in 1941. A 1971 film version drawing from Edith Hamilton's translation starred Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave, and those are the faces you see in the poster here.

The Trojan Women will be followed by a dance concert in November to finish up the 2015 part of the schedule.

In February 2015, we'll see Street Scene, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Langston Hughes, based on the 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Elmer Rice, in the Center for the Performing Arts. Rice also wrote the book for this "American opera," which focuses on two swelteringly hot summer days on the steps of a tenement on New York's East Side. The people who live inside the tenement -- a variety of cultures and ethnicities, ages and genders -- fall in love, have affairs, argue, struggle to pay the rent, celebrate and despair.

Also in February, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and its star-crossed lovers will come to Westhoff Theatre in a production directed by Kevin Rich.

Bocon!,  by Lisa Loomer, a dark piece of magical realism about a Salvadoran boy who notices that everyone he knows who speaks out disappears, will be directed by Cyndee Brown for Westhoff in March. The image you see above comes from a New Mexico production of the play.

That will be followed by Wendy and Peter Pan, a different take on the Peter Pan story, adapted for the stage by Ella Hickson, directed by Jessika Malone in the CPA in April. This version of the boy who didn't want to grow up comes from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

And with one final dance concert in April, the Illinois State University School of Theatre and Dance closes out another eclectic season.

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