Thursday, July 23, 2015

RICHARD II Rules at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Shakespeare's Richard II is a role much beloved by actors. Not a soldier king (even if that's what he looks like in the Illinois Shakespeare Festival banner above), not a wise father figure, not a clear-cut despot, Richard is a more complex regent, one who is born to rule but can't manage to hang on to his crown. He is sometimes played as arrogant and self-indulgent, careless or capricious, even as a sort of sexually ambiguous, fame-swept Michael Jackson figure, complete with pet monkey, as director Rupert Goold thought about him for the BBC's Hollow Crown miniseries.

Portrait of Richard II
in Westminster Abbey
Who Richard is also depends, of course, on who's playing the role. Over the years, a Who's Who of British actors, from John Gielgud to Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Jeremy Irons, Ralph Fiennes and Mark Rylance, have given Richard different moods and tempers. More recently, Eddie Redmayne and David Tennant have played Richard II on stage, while Ben Whishaw took the role for television. Whishaw was the one with the monkey, although in performance, his Richard seemed to be staged to evoke images of Christ more than Michael Jackson.

Kevin Rich, artistic director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, takes on Richard on the Ewing stage, offering not the spoiled child or the clueless weakling, but instead a man so steeped in his own divine right that he simply doesn't see the discord brewing around him or understand his own role in creating it. As we all confront privilege and what that means in today's America, Rich's Richard II is the epitome of privilege.

Under the direction of Robert Quinlan, Rich does a fine job with the famous "hollow crown" speech, when reality forces Richard to see the grim path ahead. Heretofore proud and a little chilly, Richard becomes more sympathetic as he sits on the ground -- a square patch of dirt in a raised planter, used to good effect in several scenes -- and sheds a tear over the death of kings. They may claim divine rights, but they're still mortal when push comes to shove or usurpers like Bolingbroke blow them up with their own petards.

Henson Keys is just as good with the play's other well-known piece, the lovely "scepter'd isle" speech wherein John of Gaunt extols the virtue of the "demi-paradise" that is England even as he laments the way in which King Richard is renting it out like some lowly "pelting farm." Keys is back in two other roles that he also dispatches nicely, giving just as much care to his portrayals of the gardener and the groom as he does mighty John of Gaunt.

Others who contribute to this Richard II include Robert Gerard Anderson as the mercurial Duke of York; Quetta Carpenter as his desperate wife; Colin Lawrence as their rebellious son; Thom Miller in three very different roles, including one with a Welsh accent; Lori Adams as a fearsome Duchess of Gloucester whose very face demands vengeance, and Steve Wojtas as bold Bolingbroke.

Lauren T. Roark's costume design is grand and regal enough to showcase the fashion excess at this court, while John C. Stark's set looks a bit like the real Westminster Hall, with its soft stone stairs and walls, while still providing an all-important square of British earth and a proper platform for all of Richard II's different levels.

It's a handsome production with all the right pieces in the right places. As you watch, think about divine right, privilege and the fleeting nature of both.

...Within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

By William Shakespeare

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
at Ewing Cultural Center

Director: Robert Quinlan
Voice and Text Coach: Sara Becker
Assistant Voice and Text Coach: Bethany Hart
Scenic Designer: John C. Stark
Costume Designer: Lauren T. Roark
Lighting Designer: Marly Wooster
Sound Designer: Keiran Pereira
Fight Director: Paul Dennhardt
Fight Captain: Ron Roman
Stage Manager: Gianna Consalvo

Cast: Kevin Rich, Steve Wojtas, Henson Keys, Robert Gerard Anderson, Thom Miller, Thomas Anthony Quinn, Quetta Carpenter, Sara J. Griffin, Leslie Lank, Natalie Blackman, Faitj Servant, Robert Michael Johnson, Joey Banks, Colin Trevino-Odell, Colin Lawrence, Ronald Roman, Lori Adams, Graham Gusloff, Dario Carrion, Nathaniel Aikens, Kaitlyn Wehr, Dalton Spalding and John C. Stark.

Remaining performances: July 25 and 30; August 6.

Running time: 2:20, including one 15-minute intermission. For ticket information, click here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

LOVE'S LABOURS' LOST and WON at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Love's Labour's Lost is that rare bird, a romantic comedy without a happy ending. It begins when the King of Navarre proposes a contract with three lords of his court, whereby all four agree to foreswear love and female companionship in order to concentrate on scholarly pursuits. That pact lasts about five minutes (okay, more like half an hour in theatrical time) until a lovely princess and three of her ladies arrive on the King's doorstep. Hijinks ensue -- secret mash notes, costumes and disguises, a crazy Spaniard in a love triangle, a couple of pompous academics gumming up the works -- until everyone has fallen under the spell of the "whimpled, whining, purblind, wayward boy" known as Cupid.

Happily ever after, right? Not so fast. No sooner have our lovers paired up than bad news arrives for the princess. She and her ladies must depart, postponing their affairs of the heart until some later date. In the language of the play, when Love's Labour's Lost has ended,"Jack hath not Jill."

That "to be continued" ending begs for Part II, to tell us if the various Jacks and Jills ever find their way back up that hill. There are indications that a Love's Labour's Won did exist at some point, although the clues are few, and no shred of a script survives. The Royal Shakespeare Company filled in the gap by using Much Ado About Nothing as its version of Love's Labour's Won in 2014, but that doesn't help anyone who really want to know what happened to Ferdinand of Navarre and his princess or Berowne and his Rosaline.

Playwright/director/theatrical man-of-all-work Scott Kaiser has fashioned his own sequel, one that does pick up the plot threads and the major players from Love's Labour's Lost. Kaiser's pensive, emotionally layered creation drops neatly into the Illinois Shakespeare Festival's summer schedule alongside its companion piece.

Designer Nicholas Hartman's charming costumes tell us that the Festival Love's Labour's Lost is set near the end of the Belle Époque period, with Won picking up four years later, as World War I stumbles to a close. Kaiser's script makes specific reference to an armistice and trenches, but otherwise his Won works with an alternate reality France in 1918, where there is still a king, Navarre is a sovereign land that plays into the negotiations, and the details of the peace accord are being worked out in the palace.

The two pieces fit together well at the Festival, with some -- but not much -- of the bawdy humor from Lost spilling over into Won. The bittersweet mood at the end of Lost more clearly informs Won, intersecting Shakespeare's characters with Hemingway's "Lost Generation" as we see how each of the men from the first play has been transformed by war. The King of Navarre is on the brink of losing his land and his throne, Berowne is sloshing around the bottom of a bottle, Dumaine is rich off war profits and poor Longaville is a prisoner. The ladies are less changed, although Rosaline has been dressing as a man to work as a reporter and Maria has become a diplomatic aide to the King of France.

There are other differences between the two plays, as well. Love's Labour's Lost plays out on an whimsical, airy set, beautifully designed by John C. Stark for the stage at Ewing Cultural Center, with a second-story library as well as a pretty round window, circular stairs and a forest of metal trees, all used to good effect for humor as the plot unfolds. Love's Labours Won looks smaller and more subdued tucked inside Illinois State University's Westhoff Theatre, where Jen Kazmierczak's scenic design features a cobwebbed chandelier, one golden chair, a table and a bench, with a pair of tall, gilded doors bracketing the action. The contrast is obvious and very telling.

As skillfully directed by Curt L. Tofteland, Love's Labour's Lost emphasizes its comedy, with Robert Gerard Anderson's outrageous Armado a highlight throughout. All four of the gentlemen from Navarre -- played by Thom Miller, Steve Wojtas, Colin Lawrence and Ronald Roman -- handle the humor nicely, as do the more low-rent Costard, played as a sort of burlesque comedian by Colin Trevino-Odell, and the local constable Dull, brought to life by Joey Banks.

Trevino-Odell is the one tasked with bridging the gap between laughter and tears in the second Love's Labour's, as director Sara Becker navigates the tricky waters of Love's Labour's Won and its shifting moods. Costard is now a soldier -- a corporal -- who's sustained damage to his corporeal form. This Costard is still a jokester, but Kaiser has written him with pain, too, that pays off in his fractured relationship with Jacquenetta, reimagined as a songstress played by Sara J. Griffin.

Lawrence's Longaville pulls the play all the way onto the sad side, with the formerly carefree swain now a thin and hollow-eyed prisoner, chained below the palace. Lawrence's subtle performance is emotional and moving over the course of the play, adding grace notes to Kaiser's script.

The women also become stronger and more defined in Love's Labour's Won, with the lovely Leslie Lank's princess at the head of the class. Quetta Carpenter's Rosaline isn't really believable as a man, but then, who among Shakespeare's ladies in trousers is? She is believable as a smart, somewhat jaded war correspondent, troubled by what she has seen, and that is more important. Faith Servant's sweet Katharine, a lovelorn lady with a conscience, is also nicely drawn, while Natalie Blackman's bookish Maria provides a welcome feminist note.

What stands out in this premiere of Love's Labour's Won is how well Scott Kaiser has taken on Shakespeare's turf. In the Illinois Shakespeare Festival production, Kaiser's play is a worthy successor to Love's Labour's Lost. And then some.

By William Shakespeare

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
at Ewing Cultural Center

Director: Curt L. Tofteland
Voice and Text Coach: Sara Becker
Scenic Designer: John C. Stark
Costume Designer: Nicholas Hartman
Lighting Designer: Cassie Mings
Composer and Arranger: Glenn Wilson
Stage Manager: Jamie K. Fuller

Cast: Thom Miller, Leslie Lank, Steve Wojtas, Quetta Carpenter, Thomas Anthony Quinn, Henson Keys, Robert Gerard Anderson, Sara J. Griffin, Colin Lawrence, Natalie Blackman, Ronald Roman, Faith Servant, Colin Trevino-Odell, Bethany Hart, Robert Michael Johnson, Graham Gusloff, Joey Banks, Nathaniel Aikens, Dario Carrion, Kaitlyn Wehr and Glenn Wilson.

Remaining performances: July 23, 26, 29 and 31; August 2, 5 and 8.

Running time: 2:20, including one 15-minute intermission. For ticket information, click here.

By Scott Kaiser

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
Westhoff Theatre

Director: Sara Becker
Assistant Director: Joey Banks
Scenic Designer: Jen Kazmierczak
Costume Designer: Nicholas Hartman
Lighting Designer: Cassie Mings
Audio System Designer: Aaron Paolucci
Composer and Arranger: Glenn Wilson
"No Goin' Back" Composer: Casey James
Stage Manager: Audra Kuchling

Cast: Henson Keys, Leslie Lank, Quetta Carpenter, Faith Servant, Natalie Blackman, Sara J. Griffin, Thom Miller, Steve Wojtas, Ronald Roman, Colin Lawrence and Colin Trevino-Odell.

Remaining performances: July 22, 24, 26 and 28; August 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7.

Running time: 2:10, including one 15-minute intermission. For ticket information, click here.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Emmy Nominations Blog-a-palooza

And two months later, she comes back to her blog...

I spent most of May and June transitioning out of my job as interim artistic director at Heartland Theatre, directing the annual 10-minute play festival there, and actually taking a vacation. It seems I needed some time off. But local theatre and entertainment have gone on without me too long, I think! You didn't get to hear my side of the "Class Reunion" plays -- terrific all around, if I do say so myself -- or the TV, movies and stage shows that came and went while I was AWOL. I even missed the Tony wrap-up.

So what lured me back? The 2015 Emmy nominations, of course! I always have opinions on that sort of thing and I can't keep them under wraps a minute longer.

If you want to see Uzo Aduba (Orange Is the New Black) and Cat Deeley (So You Think You Can Dance) read the list of nominees, you can find that video here or here. If you want to read the complete list, all the way through Outstanding Costumes For A Contemporary Series, Limited Series or Movie on page 11, the Emmy site can help you out.

Here are some highlights:

Louie (FX)
Modern Family (ABC)
Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Silicon Valley (HBO)
Transparent (Amazon Instant Video)
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
Veep (HBO)

Should win: Parks and Recreation, which finished out its run with a triumphant series finale.
Will win: It's hard to bet against Modern Family, which has won the past five years. But surely the Academy is tired of it by now. One can dream... Transparent has the zeitgeist (and a bunch of Golden Globes) but Veep is an Emmy favorite. Still, I'm holding onto hope for Parks and Recreation.

Anthony Anderson, Black-ish (ABC)
Don Cheadle, House of Lies (Showtime)
Louie C. K., Louie (FX)
Will Forte, The Last Man on Earth (Fox)
Matt LeBlanc, Episodes (Showtime)
William H. Macey, Shameless (Showtime)
Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent (Amazon Instant Video)

Should win: Jeffrey Tambor
Will win: Jeffrey Tambor

Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie (Showtime)
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep (HBO)
Lisa Kudrow, The Comeback (HBO)
Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Amy Schumer, Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central)
Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie (Netflix)

Should win: Amy Poehler. She has made Leslie Knope a beautiful mix of ambition, good cheer and idealism, and that work deserves to be celebrated before we put Parks and Recreation out to pasture.
Will win: Lisa Kudrow has done amazing work with a flawed character who is too real to be all that funny, Amy Schumer is the current It Girl (and definitely funny), Edie Falco keeps doing yeoman work with Nurse Jackie, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus is an Emmy fave with three wins in this category for Veep plus one for The New Adventures of Old Christine and one as a supporting actress for Seinfeld. So who will win? Probably Louis-Dreyfus. Emmy voters love their streaks.

Better Call Saul (AMC)
Downton Abbey (PBS)
Game of Thrones (HBO)
Homeland (Showtime)
House of Cards  (Netflix)
Mad Men (AMC)
Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)

Should win: I am partial to Mad Men. Like Parks and Rec, this powerhouse finished up its run this year.
Will win: Game of Thrones may have all the buzz, given its 24 nominations and polarizing plotlines (especially concerning violence toward women), but I think Mad Men will emerge as the victor in celebration of its brilliant final season.

Kyle Chandler, Bloodline (Netflix)
Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom (HBO)
Jon Hamm, Mad Men (AMC)
Bob Odenbirk, Better Call Saul (AMC)
Liev Schrieber, Ray Donovan (Showtime)
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards (Netflix)

Should win: Jon Hamm
Will win: I refuse to accept any outcome other than Jon Hamm finally winning an Emmy for his fantastic work as complicated, screwed-up, product-of-his-time Don Draper.

Claire Danes, Homeland (Showtime)
Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder (ABC)
Taraji P. Henson, Empire (ABC)
Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black (BBC America)
Elizabeth Moss, Mad Men (AMC)
Robin Wright, House of Cards (Netflix)

Should win: Anybody except Claire Danes. This is a talent-packed category. Tatiana Maslany, previously overlooked, certainly deserves the Emmy for her insane array of Orphan Black clones, as does Viola Davis, who is so brilliant that she makes the otherwise crazy How to Get Away with Murder so very watchable. And then there is the force of nature known as Taraji P. Henson as Cookie on Empire, while Elizabeth Moss, so good for so long on Mad Men, and Robin Wright, a bright spot in a dismal season of House of Cards, are also worthy.
Will win: I'll go with Viola. She was a stunner. Her taking-off-her-wig scene was as good as it gets on TV.

American Crime (ABC)
American Horror Story: Freakshow (FX)
Olive Kitteridge (HBO)
The Honorable Woman (Sundance)
Wolf Hall (PBS)

Should win: Olive Kitteridge
Will win: Olive Kitteridge

Agatha Christie's Poirot: Curtain, Poirot's Last Case (Acorn TV)
Bessie (HBO)
Grace of Monaco (Lifetime)
Hello Ladies: The Movie (HBO)
Killing Jesus (National Geographic Channel)
Nightingale (HBO)

Should win: Bessie is the total package.
Will win: Bessie. Poirot is also wonderful, and in Curtain, the show (and Poirot himself) boarded that crime-solving Orient Express in the sky, which may give it some sentimental oomph. Still, Bessie was bold and sad and provocative and everything an Emmy winner should be.

And outside those categories... If you are connected to Illinois Wesleyan University, you will be pleased to know that alum Richard Jenkins was nominated as lead actor for his work on Olive Kitteridge, while Jane Lynch is representing ISU with a nomination as host of Hollywood Game Night.

It's also noteworthy that half of the nominated field for Best Actor in a Limited Series or Movie is British this time out. The English trio are Ricky Gervais (Derek Special), David Oyelowo (Nightingale) and Mark Rylance (Wolf Hall), with Americans Jenkins, Timothy Hutton (American Crime) and Adrien Brody (Houdini) filling out the category. Over on the actress side of Limited Series or Movie, Emma Thompson (Sweeney Todd) is the lone Brit, facing Queen Latifah (Bessie), Frances McDormand (Olive Kitteridge), Felicity Huffman (American Crime) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Honorable Woman).

If I'm picking winners for TV movies and minis, nobody much on the male side stood out for me, but I'll go with Queen Latifah as Best Actress. Mo'Nique was also nominated for Bessie, for her supporting role as Ma Rainey opposite Queen Latifah's Bessie Smith, and if I'm honest, I'd like to see both of them win.

The Emmy Awards will be broadcast on Fox on September 20th. I'm sure prognostications will become more prevalent as we get nearer to September. In the meantime, it's well worth your while to check out the last episodes of Mad Men and Parks and Recreation as well as Bessie and Veep from HBO, Poirot's Curtain, Tatiana Maslany and Orphan Black, Transparent on Amazon and Kimmy Schmidt and Bloodline on Netflix. It's all still out there for the viewing.