Thursday, April 30, 2015

"Being Alive" for 45 Years -- TheaterMania Celebrates Sondheim's COMPANY

As we bid a fond farewell to April, it is worth noting that Company, the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical about marriage, commitment, friendship and growing up, celebrated its 45th birthday earlier this week. It has been 45 years since this fresh, funny show about a bachelor named Bobby (baby, bubby) opened on Broadway.

Bobby is a bit of an enigma, surrounded by well-meaning friends -- married couples all -- but unsure of why he isn't part of a couple himself. He dates. He is apparently a good friend, given how involved all the other couples are in his life. But Bobby... He has trouble figuring out whether sharing his life with another person is good, bad or indifferent. Is it better to let someone else move in, to hold you too close, hurt you too deep, sit in your chair, ruin your sleep? Or is being alone just being alone, not alive? That's what Bobby can't quite get past as his birthday looms.

In honor of Company's anniversary, TheaterMania has collected together a sampling of performances of "Being Alive," the stirring anthem that closes the show and asks all the questions listed above.

TheaterMania has Dean Jones, the original, Neil Patrick Harris, from the recent filmed New York Philharmonic concert version of Company, Raul Esparza, perhaps the most powerful Bobby, Adrian Lester, an English Bobby who acted the heck out of the role, Julian Ovenden, another Brit with a fabulous voice who performed it for the BBC Proms, divas Patti Lupone and Bernadette Peters, and John Barrowman, who offers one of the prettiest performances. It's a pretty fab collection strung together like that, even if it doesn't include one of my favorite interpretations of the song -- Norm Lewis's Sondheim on Sondheim "Being Alive."

You can listen to Lewis's version of "Being Alive" above or here on Youtube before you go off and buy the Sondheim on Sondheim cast album and then hunt down full versions of all those other "Being Alives." It just doesn't get better than that.

Blow out the candles, Robert. Make a wish!

Stephen Adly Guigis Wins Pulitzer for BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY

Between Riverside and Crazy, Stephen Adly Guirgis' darkly comic play that had runs at both the Atlantic Theater Company and the off-Broadway Second Stage Theatre in New York, has been named the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, awarded to "a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life."

The Pulitzer committee describes Guirgis' play as "a nuanced, beautifully written play about a retired police officer faced with eviction that uses dark comedy to confront questions of life and death." Its New York production earned multiple Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Lucille Lortel Award nominations, including nods for the play, lead actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, director Austin Pendleton, featured actress Liza Colon-Zayas, featured actor Victor Almanzar and scenic designer Walt Spangler.

Between Riverside and Crazy will be part of Steppenwolf Theater's 2015-16 season with a production scheduled to open in Chicago in June, 2016. Yasen Peyankov will direct a cast that includes James Vincent Meredith and Tim Hopper. Last year's Pulitzer recipient was Annie Baker for The Flick, which will also appear in Steppenwolf's 2015-16 season.

Guirgis's previous plays include The Motherfucker with the Hat, which played on Broadway with a cast that included Chris Rock and Bobby Cannavale, Our Lady of 121st Street, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Jesus Hopped the A Train. Guirgis also made a cameo appearance in Birdman, last year's Oscar-winning Best Picture.

The other finalists for this year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama were Jordan Harrison's Marjorie Prime, described as "a sly and surprising work about technology and artificial intelligence told through images and ideas that resonate," and Suzan-Lori Parks' Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, 3), "a distinctive and lyrical epic about a slave during the Civil War that deftly takes on questions of identity, power and freedom with a blend of humor and dignity."

The Pulitzer Prize for Drama comes with a $10,000 check to the winning playwright.

The New List of Nominees for Chicago's Non-Equity Jeff Awards

When the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee first announced their non-Equity nominees for excellence in Chicago theatre, the Hypocrites and their production of All Our Tragic, an adaptation of 32 Greek tragedies into one epic 12-hour work, showed up all over the lists. But then Hypocrites artistic director Sean Graney discovered that the company had been working under an Equity "CAT-N" contract during the important period, making All Our Tragic ineligible for the non-Equity part of the Jeff Awards. Graney self-reported and the nominations were rescinded, with other nominees taking the slots in some categories.

And that is why there is now a new list of non-Equity nominees for the 2015 Jeff Awards. Because All Our Tragic was so well-received, with some critics even touting it for the Pulitzer Prize, there are high hopes the production will now make an appearance when the Equity Jeff nominations are announced.

But in the meantime, these are the artists and productions vying for the non-Equity Jeffs, which will be handed out in a ceremony held at Park West, 322 West Armitage Avenue in Chicago, on Monday, June 8:

Production, Play
Exit Strategy, Jackalope Theatre Company
Men Should Weep, Griffin Theatre Company
Monstrous Regiment, Lifeline Theatre
Ruined, Eclipse Theatre Company
The Jungle, Oracle Productions

Production, Musical
Assassins, Kokandy Productions
Jesus Christ Superstar, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
The Full Monty, Kokandy Productions
The Wild Party, Bailiwick Chicago
Titanic, Griffin Theatre Company

Production, Revue
A Kurt Weill Cabaret, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Always...Patsy Cline, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

Director - Play
Gus Menary, Exit Strategy, Jackalope Theatre Company
Jonathan Berry, Balm in Gilead, Griffin Theatre Company
Matt Foss, The Jungle, Oracle Productions
Robin Witt, Men Should Weep, Griffin Theatre Company
Steve Scott, Intimate Apparel, Eclipse Theatre Company

Director, Musical or Revue
Brenda Didier, The Wild Party, Bailiwick Chicago
Fred Anzevino, Always...Patsy Cline, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Linda Fortunato, Parade, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble
Rachel Edwards Harvith, Assassins, Kokandy Productions
Scott Weinstein, Titanic, Griffin Theatre Company

Assassins, Kokandy Productions
Balm in Gilead, Griffin Theatre Company
Exit Strategy, Jackalope Theatre Company
The Jungle, Oracle Productions
The Wild Party, Bailiwick Chicago
Titanic, Griffin Theatre Company

Actor in a Principal Role, Play 
Aaron Kirby, Geezers, Redtwist Theatre
Aaron Kirby, Red, Redtwist Theatre
Andre Teamer, Ruined, Eclipse Theatre Company
Joseph Wiens, Look Back in Anger, Redtwist Theatre
Kevin Cox, La Bete, Trap Door Theater
Michael Manocchio, Mike and Seth, the side project, the side project, the side project
Steve O'Connell, Dead Accounts, Step Up Productions

Actor in a Principal Role, Musical
Garrett Lutz, The Full Monty, Kokandy Productions
Jim DeSelm, Parade, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble
Matthew Keffer, The Wild Party, Bailiwick Chicago
Maxwell J. DeTogne, Jesus Christ Superstar, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Sam Button-Harrison, The Book of Merman, Pride Films and Plays

Actress in a Principal Role, Play
Ashleigh Lathrop, Balm in Gilead, Griffin Theatre Company
Kelly Owens, Intimate Apparel, Eclipse Theatre Company
Kendra Thulin, The Vandal, Steep Theatre Company
Lori Myers, Men Should Weep, Griffin Theatre Company
Stephanie Chavara, Charles Ives, Take Me Home, Strawdog Theatre Company
TayLar, Ruined, Eclipse Theatre Company

Actress in a Principal Role, Musical or Revue
Callie Johnson, Carrie, Bailiwick Chicago
Christina Hall, Always...Patsy Cline, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Courtney Jones, The Next Thing, Signal Ensemble Theatre
Danni Smith, The Wild Party, Bailiwick Chicago
Sarah Bockel, Parade, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

Actor in a Supporting Role, Play
Jack Miggins, The Vandal, Steep Theatre Company
Matthew Klingler, All My Sons, Raven Theatre
Nate Whelden, Stupid Fucking Bird, Sideshow Theatre Company
Shane Kenyon, If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet, Steep Theatre Company
Will Casey, Vieux Carre, Raven Theatre

Actor in a Supporting Role, Musical
Donterrio Johnson, Jesus Christ Superstar, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Eric Lindahl, Assassins, Kokandy Productions
Jason Richards, Assassins, Kokandy Productions
Justin Adair, Titanic, Griffin Theatre Company
Nick Graffagna, Ordinary Days, BoHo Theatre
Scott Danielson, The Full Monty, Kokandy Productions

Actress in a Supporting Role, Play
Annie Prichard, Another Bone, Redtwist Theatre
Cyd Blakewell, Balm in Gilead, Griffin Theatre Company
Ginneh Thomas, The Submission, Pride Films and Plays
Jen Short, All My Sons, Raven Theatre
JoAnn Montemurro, Vieux Carre, Raven Theatre

Actress in a Supporting Role, Musical or Revue
Caron Buinis, The Full Monty, Kokandy Productions
Courtney Jones, Ordinary Days, BoHo Theatre
Danni Smith, Always...Patsy Cline, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Danni Smith, Jesus Christ Superstar, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Hannah Dawe, Ordinary Days, BoHo Theatre
Katherine I. Condit, Carrie, Bailiwick Chicago

New Work
Erik Gernand, A Place in the Woods, The Fine Print Theatre Company
Ike Holter, Exit Strategygy, Jackalope Theatre Company
Joe Zarrow, Principal Principle, Stage Left Theatre and Theatre Seven of Chicago
Ronan Marra and Jon Steinhagen, The Next Thing, Signal Ensemble Theatre

New Adaptation
Chris Hainsworth, Monstrous Regiment, Lifeline Theatre
Matt Foss, The Jungle, Oracle Productions

Brenda Didier, Jesus Christ Superstar, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Brenda Didier, The Wild Party, Bailiwick Chicago
Daniel Spagnuolo, The Full Monty, Kokandy Productions
Steve Love, Caged Dames, Hell in a Handbag Productions

Music Direction
Aaron Benham, Always...Patsy Cline, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Aaron Benham, The Wild Party, Bailiwick Chicago
Elizabeth Doran, Titanic, Griffin Theatre Company
Jeremy Ramey, A Kurt Weill Cabaret, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Jeremy Ramey, Jesus Christ Superstar, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

Original Music in a Play
James Sugg, Stupid Fucking Bird, Sideshow Theatre Company
John Szymanski, One Came Home, Lifeline Theatre
Nicholas Tonozzi, Circle-Machine, Oracle Productions
Nicholas Tonozzi and Sam Allyn, The Jungle, Oracle Productions

Scenic Design
Courtney O'Neill, Men Should Weep, Griffin Theatre Company
Dan Stratton, Balm in Gilead, Griffin Theatre Company
Jeffrey D. Kmiec, Dividing the Estate, Raven Theatre Ray Toler, Vieux Carre, Raven Theatre
Zachary Gipson, Caged Dames, Hell in a Handbag Productions

Lighting Design
Brian Hoehne, The Wild Party, Bailiwick Chicago
Laura Wiley, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Idle Muse Theatre Company
Maya Michele Fein, A Kurt Weill Cabaret, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Sean Mallary, The Arsonists, Strawdog Theatre Company

Costume Design
Rachel Lambert, Intimate Apparel, Eclipse Theatre Company
Rachel Sypniewski, La Bete, Trap Door Theater
Rachel Sypniewski, Titanic, Griffin Theatre Company
Theresa Ham, The Wild Party, Bailiwick Chicago

Sound Design
Danny Rockett, Cookie Play, Trap Door Theater
Heath Hays, The Sweeter Option, Strawdog Theatre Company
Karli Blalock, Red, Redtwist Theatre
Sarah Espinoza, The Arsonists, Strawdog Theatre Company

Artistic Specialization
Musical Arrangements, Aaron Benham, A Musical Tribute to the Andrews Sisters, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Projection Design, Anthony Churchill, Ordinary Days, BoHo Theatre

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Time for the Tony Nominations!

It's an exciting time of year for theater fans. Time for the Tony nominations!

The annual Antoinette Perry Awards for Excellence in Theatre honor the best shows, performers and designers on Broadway. Earning nominations has helped plays of the past gain visibility, while getting a performance slot on the awards show has helped sell tickets for many a musical.

So whose show will reign supreme this year? The way this year's nominations have fallen into place, coming-of-age musical Fun Home, film-to-stage musical An American in Paris, Shakespeare spoof Something's Rotten!, revivals of The King and I and Skylight, and British imports The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Wolf Hall are leading the pack.

Here's the complete list of nominations:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Hand to God
Wolf Hall Parts One & Two

An American in Paris
Fun Home
Something's Rotten
The Visit

The Elephant Man
This Is Our Youth
You Can't Take It With You

The King and I
On the Town
On the Twentieth Century

Craig Lucas, An American in Paris
Lisa Kron, Fun Home
Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, Something's Rotten!
Terrence McNally, The Visit

Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (lyrics), Fun Home
Sting (music and lyrics), The Last Ship
Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick (music and lyrics), Something Rotten!
John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics), The Visit

Steven Boyer, Hand to God 
Bradley Cooper, The Elephant Man
Ben Miles, Wolf Hall Parts One & Two
Bill Nighy, Skylight
Alex Sharp, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time 

Geneva Carr, Hand to God
Helen Mirren, The Audience
Elisabeth Moss, The Heidi Chronicles
Carey Mulligan, Skylight 
Ruth Wilson, Constellations

Michael Cerveris, Fun Home
Robert Fairchild, An American in Paris
Brian d’Arcy James, Something Rotten! 
Ken Watanabe, The King and I 
Tony Yazbeck, On the Town

Kristin Chenoweth, On the Twentieth Century
Leanne Cope, An American in Paris
Beth Malone, Fun Home
Kelli O’Hara, The King and I 
Chita Rivera, The Visit

Matthew Beard, Skylight 
K. Todd Freeman, Airline Highway
Richard McCabe, The Audience 
Alessandro Nivola, The Elephant Man
Nathaniel Parker, Wolf Hall Parts One & Two
Micah Stock, It’s Only a Play

Annaleigh Ashford, You Can’t Take It with You
Patricia Clarkson, The Elephant Man 
Lydia Leonard, Wolf Hall Parts One & Two 
Sarah Stiles, Hand to God 
Julie White, Airline Highway

Christian Borle, Something Rotten! 
Andy Karl, On the Twentieth Century 
Brad Oscar, Something Rotten! 
Brandon Uranowitz, An American in Paris
Max von Essen, An American in Paris 

Victoria Clark, Gigi 
Judy Kuhn, Fun Home
Sydney Lucas, Fun Home 
Ruthie Ann Miles, The King and I 
Emily Skeggs, Fun Home

Stephen Daldry, Skylight
Marianne Elliott, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Scott Ellis, You Can't Take It With You
Jeremy Herrin, Wolf Hall Parts One & Two
Moritz von Stuelpnagel, Hand to God

Sam Gold, Fun Home
Casey Nicholaw, Something Rotten!
John Rando, On the Town
Bartlett Sher, The King and I
Christopher Wheeldon, An American in Paris

Joshua Bergasse, On the Town
Christopher Gattelli, The King and I
Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Casey Nicholaw, Something Rotten!
Christopher Wheeldon, An American in Paris

Christopher Austin, Don Sebesky and Bill Elliott, An American in Paris
John Clancy, Fun Home 
Larry Hochman, Something Rotten! 
Rob Mathes, The Last Ship

Bunny Christie and Finn Ross, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Bob Crowley, Skylight 
Christopher Oram, Wolf Hall Parts One & Two
David Rockwell, You Can’t Take It with You 

Bob Crowley and 59 Productions, An American in Paris
David Rockwell, On the Twentieth Century
Michael Yeargan, The King and I 
David Zinn, Fun Home

Bob Crowley, The Audience 
Jane Greenwood, You Can’t Take It with You
Christopher Oram, Wolf Hall Parts One & Two
David Zinn, Airline Highway

Gregg Barnes, Something Rotten! 
Bob Crowley, An American in Paris 
William Ivey Long, On the Twentieth Century 
Catherine Zuber, The King and I

Paule Constable, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time 
Paule Constable and David Plater, Wolf Hall Parts One & Two 
Natasha Katz, Skylight 
Japhy Weideman, Airline Highway

Donald Holder, The King and I
Natasha Katz, An American in Paris
Ben Stanton, Fun Home
Japhy Weideman, The Visit

In other Tony news, Tommy Tune will receive the special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, while  the Cleveland Play House will be awarded the Regional Theatre Tony.

Other special Tony honors will be given to composer Stephen Schwartz, recipient of the Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award, and to John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote and starred in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, now receiving a Tony for his return to that show. Tony Awards for Excellence in Theatre will be presented to press agent Adrian Brian-Brown; Gene O'Donovan, founder of the Hudson Scenic Studio; and scenic designer and painter Arnold Abramson.

The Tony Awards will be broadcast on Sunday, June 7 on CBS. For all the Tony news you need now and then, check out their official website.

Humana Festival, Part 3: Erin Courtney's I WILL BE GONE

The premise behind Erin Courtney's I Will Be Gone is moody and evocative, creating mysteries and intrigue before the first line.

Teenage Penelope, called Pen for short, has come to California to live with her aunt following the death of her mother. Aunt Jo lives very near an abandoned mining town, Bodie, a real place where the dilapidated remains of old buildings are protected as a historic site.

Pen eventually gets a job as a tour guide in Bodie, coming a little too close to some of the ghosts -- of her mother's past and the town's past -- who haunt the ghost town. As tensions rise, Jo runs into her old love, now the town's mayor, a gawky teenage boy starts hanging around Pen, and a homeless man the other townspeople protect begins to get a little more erratic.

It's all intriguing as you find yourself puzzling out who's connected to whom in what way, what happened in the past, and how Courtney's story will unspool. The play's dramatic quotient is aided immeasurably by Andrew Boyce's scenic design, with a whole miniature ghost town that descends from the rafters when it's needed. It's detailed and spooky at the same time, giving director Kip Fagan lots of nooks and crannies to play with as actors crawl underneath the level that carries the ghost town.

Ultimately, however, the script doesn't support its characters as strongly as the set does, as storylines and characters end up more vague than compelling, more fluky than fully developed. The one exception is the character of Jim, the homeless man, brought to life nicely by Triney Sandoval. The others all seem like ciphers, like character fragments.

What lingers in your mind is Boyce's haunted, haunting set. For I Will Be Gone to resonate, its ghosts need to become more substantial. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

GLASS MENAGERIE Shines at Heartland

Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie may be over 70, but it still seems young and fresh on the stage. There's a reason for that. It lies in Williams' central conflict, with a mother so lost in what she wants for her children that she doesn't see who they are or what they want. The parent/child impasse, the desperation, the inability to understand... It's achingly real.

Because of that, Amanda Wingfield, the mother in question, has been a dream role for generations, as has her son Tom, this memory play's unhappy narrator and a representation of Williams himself. They seem like real people who could be plucked off any family tree.

In the context of the play, the Wingfield family, such as it is, has fallen on hard times. Dad decamped years ago, and the three remaining Wingfields -- Amanda, Tom and daughter Laura, a fragile, shy young woman -- live in a poor apartment in St. Louis. Tom supports the family with his income from a drab job in a shoe factory, even as he dreams of becoming a writer. His mother pushes him to make more of himself, but she also constantly interrupts when he tries to write. As she repeats stories of her own girlhood as a Southern belle, Amanda is desperate to find "gentleman callers" for her daughter, who becomes ill at the very idea.

Don LaCasse, the head of the MFA directing program at Illinois State University, makes this Glass Menagerie moody and a little misty, as befits a memory play. He is aided in that effort by John Stark's beautiful set, framed in brick and lace to keep the action constricted and confined, with a tricky little corner fire escape that affords Tom a breath of fresh air. Cassie Mings' lighting design is just as impressive, moving the actors from shadow to candlelight and darkness and providing a really lovely final tableau.

Connie de Veer leads the cast as Amanda, offering a fully-drawn portrayal of a woman who expected so much more from her life than where she is now. It's not easy to make this domineering, narcissistic woman sympathetic, but de Veer finds a way. We can see her desperation and her lost dreams on her face and in her eyes, no matter what the facade, and the touches of humor in the performance only serve to underline that.

Joe Faifer is strong and equally compelling as Tom, who loves his sister -- and his mother -- even as he chokes on the stranglehold they have on him. His Tom is a little rough around the edges, someone we can see bolting to become a merchant marine, with a command of language that tells us everything we need to know about Tennessee the writer. The layers and the contradictions are all there in Faifer's performance.

As Laura, Elsa Torner is lovely and delicate, visibly shattering at even a hint of having to make her way in the world, breaking our hearts every time she tries to make herself heard, while Patrick Riley's ebullient Gentleman Caller is a welcome counterpoint with his boyish enthusiasm and can-do spirit.

The beauty of this production is that each of the four shows dashed dreams and failed expectations, giving strong support to each corner of Williams' play. After we've met them, we want more for each of them. It's the eternal human dilemma, right there in front of our eyes.

By Tennessee Williams

Heartland Theatre Company

Director: Don LaCasse
Assistant Director: Megan Hoepker
Scenic Designer: John Stark
Assistant Scenic Designer/Charge Artist/Properties Master: Jen Kazmierczak
Costume Designer: Lauren Lowell
Lighting Designer: Cassie Mings
Sound Designer: Shannon O'Neill
Assistant Sound Designer: Mat Piotrowski
Stage Manager: Matthew Harter

Cast: Connie de Veer, Joseph Faifer, Patrick Riley and Elsa Torner.

Running time: 2:10, including one 10-minute intermission.

Remaining performances: April 23, 24, 25 and 26, 2015

For performances times and ticket information, click here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Humana Festival, part 2: Memory, Change and Family in Colman Domingo's DOT

When submissions come in for Heartland Theatre's annual 10-minute play festival, it's pretty much a guarantee that there will be a substantial number dealing with Alzheimer's and dementia. Those are topics very much on playwrights' minds, very much part of the current zeitgeist.

Colman Domingo, the playwright behind Dot, perhaps the most approachable offering in this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays, has said he was influenced to write his play after watching four different friends deal with a parent with dementia or Alzheimer's. He noted that they found dark comedy in their crises, even as they all recognized "this huge elephant in the room about memory and change."

The Dot in the title is Dotty, a widowed mother with three adult children and one grandchild. She still lives in the same West Philly home where she raised her kids, in a neighborhood that is deteriorating around her in a clear parallel to her own declining health. Her oldest daughter Shelly, a Type A lawyer with a young son, has pretty much moved in to help Dotty, even though they are driving each other crazy. Dotty repeats the same questions again and again, forgets to eat, has acquired a new, salty vocabulary, frequently insults and annoys her daughter, and gets confused about who's who and whether her long-dead husband is still there.

Shelly thinks it's time to send her mother to assisted living, but Dotty has a different solution. She dropped a hint that it may be time to end it all, which freaked out Shelly and prompted her to demand that her siblings -- onetime golden boy Donnie, a gay playwright with a new husband but not a whole lot of money, and wannabe Youtube sensation Averie, who is so strapped she is living in Shelly's basement -- come back to the family home for Christmas and get behind her plan.

Along with Dotty's children, we see Jackie, a white girl as well as an old neighbor who was once in love with Donny, and Fidel, Dotty's undocumented Kazakh caregiver. Although Fidel is more low-key, the others are vivid, stubborn people, given to emotional outbursts and meltdowns, and Domingo's play throws us into their lives when the burners are already lit underneath them.

As directed by Meredith McDonough, associate artistic director at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Dot is lively and funny, with the anxiety underlying the comedy never far out of sight. McDonough's cast is strong, with excellent work from Marjorie Johnson as Dotty, veering from lucid and snappy to lost and confused; Sharon Washington as Shelly, the one who gets stuck with all the thankless work; Kevin R. Free as adorable Donnie, who has chosen the wrong time for a juice cleanse; Sean Dugan as Adam, Donnie's husband, a feisty redhead with a taste for flashy leisure wear; and Megan Byrne as Jackie, the other redhead and the ultimate outsider in this group, still feeling pangs of unrequited love for Donnie even as she deals with her own crisis. I also enjoyed Vichet Chum as Fidel, the sweet if inexplicable immigrant from Kazakhstan who stirs even more issues into the pot, and Adrienne C. Moore's energetic take on Averie, who blows into the house like a tacky hurricane.

The script's strength lies in its comedy and conflict, both timed well in this production, although it starts with its dial turned to 11, which doesn't give it much room to build. That leaves the second act feeling a little soft and unformed, with both Dotty's tape recorded speeches and Donnie's "dementia kit" moments feeling a bit preachy and out of place. Still, the moment when Dotty recreates a dance memory with Adam is lovely, heartfelt and an emotional highlight.

There is definitely heart in this portrait of an African-American family at Christmas, but at times it seems more superficial than it should, more cuddly and cute than real or revelatory. It was certainly warmly embraced by its Humana Festival audience, and its issues will continue to be of concern to those struggling to handle loved ones with dementia. Which is quite a large group, after all....

Monday, April 13, 2015

Rebecca Gilman's LUNA GALE Wins Steinberg/ATCA New Play Prize

Every year, the American Theatre Critics Association pairs with the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust to hand out awards to playwrights with new work that premiered professionally outside New York City during the previous year. The Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Awards give the winning playwrigths a total of $40,000, making this "the largest national new play award recognizing regional theaters."

Rebecca Gilman
This year, Rebecca Gilman was the big winner, with a $25,000 check presented along with a commemorative plaque for Luna Gale, which premiered in early 2014 at Chicago's Goodman Theatre under the direction of Robert Falls. The Goodman called this "powerful and arresting" story about an overworked social worker faced with a custody choice between teenage drug addict parents and a religious zealot grandparent "an unforgettable tale of faith and forgiveness"in their promotional materials, while The Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones named it to his Best of 2014 List and Time Out Chicago's Kris Vires lauded it as Pulitzer Prize worthy material.

When she accepted the award, Gilman noted that the Goodman is her theatrical home. She is the author of Spinning into Butter and Boy Gets Girl, both commissioned and originally produced at the Goodman. Gilman has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, The Harper Lee Award, The Scott McPherson Award, The Prince Prize for Commissioning New Work, The Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, The Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright, The George Devine Award, The Theatre Masters Visionary Award, The Great Plains Playwright Award and an Illinois Arts Council playwriting fellowship. Boy Gets Girl was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best New Play, while The Glory of Living was a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Gilman is currently an artistic associate at the Goodman Theatre as well as associate professor of playwriting and screenwriting at Northwestern University.

Additional $7500 citations went to Lucas Hnath's The Chistians, which premiered at last year's Humana Festival, and Nathan Alan Davis's Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, part of the New Play Network' Rolling World Premiere Program with productions at the Skylight Theatre Company and Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles and the Washington DC Source Theater Festival.

The Christians took a theatrical look at issues of faith in contemporary mega-churches, posing hard questions with no easy answers, while Dontrell examined a young man's attempt to connect with his roots by researching an ancestor who chose to die drowning in the ocean rather than arrive on American shores as a slave.

Since its inception, the Steinberg New Play Award has singled out and honored playwrights like Arthur Miller, Marsha Norman, Lynn Nottage, August Wilson and Lanford Wilson. Lauren Gunderson took the top prize last year for her play I and You. For the complete list of winners and runners-up, click here.

For more information on the Steinberg/ATCA Award, contact William F. Hirschman, outgoing chair of the ATCA New Play Committee, at

Humana Festival, Part 1: Jen Silverman's ROOMMATE Makes an Uneasy Match

At first blush, the women who shared a house in Jen Silverman's The Roommate, the first play I saw at last weekend's Humana Festival of New American Plays, seemed like familiar types living out a familiar premise. They couldn't be more different and yet here they are, forced to share the same space. The More the Merrier, The Goodbye Girl, The Odd Couple...

In this Roommate, Sharon, an Iowa housewife divorced from her husband and somewhat estranged from her son, has advertised for a roommate to share her house and cut her expenses. Sharon is sweet and perky, naive and sheltered. She tells us she is originally from Illinois, which means to her that she is more sophisticated than a mere Iowan, but she still seems pretty limited in life experiences and mental reach.

The roommate she gets is Robyn, a vegan, lesbian smoker from the Bronx, who comes into Sharon's orbit with a lot of baggage, both literal and figurative. Robyn is edgier and more guarded, and she serves as a surprise and a source of fascination to her new roomie. So, of course, we see a clash of cultures, a gradual revealing of secrets, and a plot reversal or two as these two women look past their differences and come together as... What? Friends? Maybe.

Silverman has said that she was trying to write a play with roles for bad-ass women over 50, and on the surface, I suppose Sharon and Robyn could be described that way. Silverman's idea to provide more fully-drawn roles for actresses of a certain age couldn't be more welcome in today's theatrical landscape. But how she carries it out in The Roommate is a bit more problematic.

As we (and Sharon) poke into who and what Robyn is, the play moves away from the "odd couple" aspect and more into Thelma and Louise territory, but that is a major leap, especially for the character of Sharon. We understand that she is looking for a new direction, but the one she takes seems more destructive and ill-conceived than bad-ass, more off the rails -- or, to continue the Thelma and Louise theme, over a cliff -- than convincing story-telling.

Still, Silverman's writing is funny and entertaining, and Margaret Daly's warm, sweet performance as Sharon made her a rootable character in the Humana Festival production directed by Mike Donahue. Tasha Lawrence also did fine work as Robyn, creating someone real and keeping her compelling even as the dynamic shifted.

Andrew Boyce's scenic design in-the-round in Actors Theatre of Lousiville's Bingham Theatre set the right mood around Sharon's kitchen table, while Daniel Kluger's original music was a highlight, keeping the transitions fun and fizzy and moving the play along.

As you might expect from Actors Theatre, the play looked and sounded great. But the overreaching takeaway was a little trickier. Was Sharon's journey supposed to teach us that you should only venture outside your Iowa comfort zone with trepidation? Look before you leap? Or that latching onto someone new and scary, losing yourself but finding crime, drugs and cruelty, is a better idea than sitting in your kitchen by yourself?

By the end of the play, neither of those extremes was the right match for the material.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

THE GLASS MENAGERIE Opens Tomorrow at Heartland Theatre

It's not like Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie has ever gone out of style, but still... Recently -- or maybe since the Broadway revival that starred Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield and Zachary Quinto as her son Tom -- Glass Menagerie has been hotter than hot.

Heartland Theatre's production, which opens tomorrow night with a "pay what you can preview," is directed by Don LaCasse, the Illinois State University professor at the helm of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Lynn Nottage's musing on what it meant to be an African-American movie star in the first half of the 20th century, last fall for ISU, and Douglas Post's psychological mystery Earth and Sky for Heartland last season. The Glass Menagerie is considerably different from either of those shows, although it does have strong female characters in common with the other two.

LaCasse directs ISU professor Connie de Veer as Amanda Wingfield, the lapsed Southern belle who despairs of understanding her children or the place her life has led her. The Glass Menagerie offers de Veer a chance to take on one of the biggest roles in the American theatrical canon, one originated by the legendary Laurette Taylor and revived on stage by the likes of Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris, Jessica Lange, and, as mentioned above, the amazing Cherry Jones. Joanne Woodward played Amanda in a very well-received 1987 film directed by her husband Paul Newman, while Shirley Booth and Katharine Hepburn were very different Amandas in very different versions of the play produced for television.

The actors who have played Tom, the stand-in role for Tennessee Williams himself, are also a Who's Who of the American stage, from Eddie Dowling, who produced and directed the 1945 Chicago production that put the play on the map and then moved to Broadway; to Montgomery Clift, George Grizzard, Hal Holbrook, Ċ½eljko Ivanek, John Malkovich, Rip Torn and Sam Waterston. And, of course, Zachary Quinto, the new Spock, who was opposite Cherry Jones.

For LaCasse's production, Tom will be played by Joe Faifer, a fine actor who graced ISU stages in roles as disparate as inebriated old actor Selsdon Mowbray in Noises Off, an innocent man sent to Death Row in The Exonerated and a father slipping into dementia in Tales of the Lost Formicans.

That's the beauty of The Glass Menagerie and why it's such a great choice for all these revivals and reimaginings -- the characters are so strong and yet so flexible that every production is a little different, each providing a new lens to see the play. Joanne Woodward and John Malkovich make for a unique mother and son, just as Laurette Taylor and Eddie Dowling did before them. And de Veer and Faifer will at Heartland.

They will be joined at Heartland by Elsa Torner, who played Christina, the youngest Mundy sister in ISU's recent Dancing at Lughnasa, as Laura, Tom's fragile sister, while Patrick Riley, seen to good advantage in The Marriage of Bette and Boo and Playboy of the Western World in Westhoff Theatre, as Jim, the would-be suitor Tom brings home after pressure from his mother to provide a "Gentleman Caller" for his sister.

After tomorrow's "pay what you can" preview, The Glass Menagerie will continue at Heartland Theatre on June 10 and 11; 16, 17, 18 and 19; and 23, 24, 25 and 26, with evening performances at 7:30 pm and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. The cast will be present for a talkback after the matinee on the 19th to answer questions about how they approached their roles and why this play continues to exert such a strong influence in American theatre.

Follow these links for more information on showtimes and reservations.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Loading Up Your April Basket

April always seems to be a big month for entertainment -- it's when people peek outside looking for shows after a winter spent inside, when theatre companies announce their new seasons and start hawking subscriptions, when TV shows gear up for spring sweeps, and new work starts cropping up at festivals around the country.

First, let's just get Mad Men out of the way right off the top. AMC's amazing piece of television history begins its final season this Sunday night, with ad man Don Draper and his colleagues, wives, lovers and kids taking a trip to the 70s. Watch out for polyester, plaid and a major infusion of facial hair. Where will Don and Peggy and Roger and Joan end up? Given what we've seen so far, happily ever after doesn't seem likely. Neither does Don ending up as D. B. Cooper, but that doesn't stop people from continuing to guess it.

Speaking of new work... I will be making my annual trip to Louisville for Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American plays next weekend. No better spot to wallow in theatre for an entire weekend. There will be six full-length shows, a program of three new 10-minute plays, parties, panels and impromptu discussions. I'll let you know what I thought about all of that as soon as I get back. But in the meantime...

I don't think there is any particular Tennessee Williams anniversary or event that we're celebrating this month, but it's not like the work of this quintessentially American playwright ever goes out of style. Thomas Lanier Williams, AKA Tennessee, was born March 26, 1911, and here he is, 104 years later, with his plays still a hot item on the stage. In fact, from Normal to Urbana, there is a Tennessee Williams Trifecta available this month. You can easily do all three if you have a hankering to compare/contrast, from the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire to perennial favorite The Glass Menagerie and upstart Not About Nightingales, all within a 50-mile radius.

Elia Kazan's 1951 movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire was nominated for a dozen Oscars, winning four, including Best Actress for Vivien Leigh as Blanche, Best Supporting Actress for Kim Hunter as Stella and Best Supporting Actor for Karl Malden as Mitch. Kazan had also directed the Broadway version of Williams' steamy drama, with Marlon Brando, Hunter and Malden in the same roles. There is much to admire and much to chew on in the movie, too, with Leigh almost translucent as poor, fading Blanche, and Brando giving a Method acting clinic as crude, sexual, red-meat-eating Stanley Kowalski. When Blanche and Stanley are thrown into conflict in a tiny, stifling, much-too-crowded New Orleans apartment, something's got to give, and we all know it won't be pretty. This Streetcar plays four times on the screen at the Normal Theater, 7 pm each night between April 2 and 5.

Streetcar on film is a perfect appetizer for The Glass Menagerie, which will be live on stage at Heartland beginning April 9. ISU professor Connie de Veer portrays Amanda Wingfield, another faded Southern belle fallen on hard times. Unlike Blanche DuBois, Amanda has children. But her relationship with theme is just as constricted and unsuccessful as anything Blanche attempts. Son Tom wants nothing more than to get out of the apartment to live a life of his own, but if he goes, he will have to leave his fragile sister Laura behind. Don LaCasse director Glass Menagerie for Heartland, with Joe Faifer as Tom, Elsa Torner as Laura and Patrick Riley as the Gentleman Caller. Performances continue through April 26, with a talkback with the cast scheduled after the Sunday matinee on April 19. For all the details, click here.

The Urbana part of the Tennessee Williams equation is a lesser-known work called Not About Nightingales, directed by Tom Mitchell at the Studio Theatre inside the University of Illinois' Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Nightingales opens April 9, as well, with performances through the 19th. Williams wrote this play in 1938, supposedly inspired by a real-life Pennsylvania case of abuse and death inside a prison. In the fictional prison, inmates go on a hunger strike and eventually riot as conditions become unlivable.

Illinois State University moves far away from Tennessee Williams, into a land of fantasy and folklore with Selkie: Between Land and Sea a lyrical drama by Laurie Brooks, directed by Jessika Malone for ISU's Westhoff Theatre from April 9 to 18. Olivia Candocia plays the mystical girl/seal creature called a Selkie, while Dave Lemmon and Eddie Curley portray the men in her story. For more information, try this link.

David Ives' All in the Timing is pretty much a perfect program of 10-minute plays, combining humor, commentary on modern relationships, and even a few barbs pointed in the direction of 20th century Russian politics. I'm looking at you, Leon Trotsky! Illinois Central College in East Peoria takes on All in the Timing April 10 to 19, with the Ives' collection directed by Rob Fulton, Julie Peters and Doug Rosson for the Studio Theatre in ICC's Performing Arts Center.

Eureka College's Pritchard Theatre is a fairly intimate setting, making it an interesting choice for Tracy Letts' sprawling, messy, dark family comedy August Osage County. There is a very large house at the center of August as well as several generations of the Weston family. Will that fit at Pritchard? Time and Eureka's production will tell the tale from April 14 to 18. Joel Shoemaker directs the Westons and their swirl of family troubles.

The Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts is big on improv, which means Broadway's Next Hit Musical, an improvised piece of musical comedy, is right up their alley. You can offer your own suggestions and see if the improvisers spin a new show out of your idea on April 16 at the BCPA.

If you like being involved in the show, you may be able to take it a step farther than just pitching ideas out of the audience. You can act, too! Or at least audition. Heartland often uses its annual 10-minute play festival to widen its pool of actors. And why not? There are more than 20 roles up for grabs in nine short plays, with characters ranging from a pair of 18-year-old high school students to a 90-year-old nun. Auditions for Heartland's 10-minute play festival will be held from 7 to 9:30 pm on April 20 and 21 at Heartland Theatre.

Appropriate, a firecracker of a play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, brings its creepy post-Colonial sins of the father to Urbana's Station Theatre from April 23 to May 9. Is its title referring to the verb "appropriate," meaning to steal, to seize, to convert to one's own possession? Or the adjective "appropriate,"meaning suitable or fitting? I think it's the former, given the plantation setting and thhe echoes of its racist past that continue to plague it. Like August: Osage CountyAppropriate centers on a large family home. And the Station Theatre is even smaller than Pritchard over in Eureka. How will the overgrown plantation fit? It's a mystery! Appropriate is directed by Mike Prosise for the Celebration Company at the Station Theatre.

Back home in Bloomington-Normal, New Route Theatre offers Black N Blue Boys/Broken Men by Dael Orlandersmith. Look for Black N Blue April 24 to 26 and May 1 to 3 at New Route's new space at 814 Jersey Avenue in Normal. Don Shandrow directs Claron Sharrieff in this one-woman show, an examination of "the captivating life stories of six unforgettable male characters of diverse backgrounds whose inescapable connections tie them together through traumatic pasts."