Monday, February 29, 2016

Eureka College Opens EURYDICE Wednesday Night

Eureka College is becoming the go-to place locally for the plays of Sarah Ruhl. This time, it's Eurydice, Ruhl's 2003 re-imagining of the Greek myth of Eurydice and Orpheus. In the original, as well as in most modern adaptations, the story tends to be all about Orpheus, a musician so talented, so inspired, that when his wife Eurydice dies shortly after their wedding, his mournful singing makes the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus weep along with him. They urge him to travel to the Underworld to retrieve her, and once there, he even convinces Hades, god of the Underworld, to allow it. But Hades sets a condition -- Orpheus can take Eurydice back to the world of the living, but only if he walks ahead and never looks back to make sure she's still there. As in many myths, the temptation is too much, Orpheus turns, and Eurydice is lost to him forever.

What Ruhl brings to the table is a different focus. She sets her story around Eurydice instead of her singing idol husband, showing us her point of view during their wedding, the tragic accident that befalls her, her journey down to Hades and what happens to her there, including reuniting with her father, who passed away years before. When Orpheus comes for her, she has to decide whether she wants to rejoin life in the real world or stay with her beloved dad. It's a whole different story.

Ruhl's script is lyrical and poetic, loaded with emotion as it looks at what it means for Eurydice to be alive and to be dead, to weigh the demands of different kinds of love. It's a challenging play, too, as Ruhl serves up surreal images and strange characters to define her Underworld.

On Wednesday March 2, director Caitlin Herzlinger will bring Ruhl's Eurydice to Pritchard Theatre on the campus of Eureka College for the first of five performances. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances begin at 7:30 pm, while the Sunday matinee is set for 2 pm. There is no set price for tickets -- you are invited to pay what you think is best, with all proceeds earmarked for the Heart House of Eureka.

Click here for the Eureka College event page. Email or call 309-467-6363 to make reservations.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Oscars 2016... Giving Out the Gold.

Anybody up for an Oscars live blog? Or in-front-of-my-TV blog? Let's get this party started...

All of the nominees are listed below, and I will bring them to the top in the order they're handed out. Tally so far: The Big Short 1, Bridge of Spies 1, The Danish Girl 1, Ex Machina 1, The Hateful Eight 1, Inside Out 1, Mad Max: Fury Road 6, The Revenant 3, Room 1, Spotlight 2.

The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
*Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Cate Blanchett, Carol
*Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Lenny Abrahamson, Room
*Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

MUSIC (Original Song)
"Earned It," 50 Shades of Gray, music and lyrics by The Weeknd, Ahmad Balshe, Jason Quenneville and Stephan Moccio
"Manta Ray," Racing Extinction, music by J. Ralph, lyrics by Anohni
"Simple Song #3," Youth, music and lyrics by David Lang
"Til It Happens to You," The Hunting Ground, music and lyrics by Diane Warren and Lady Gaga
*"Writing’s on the Wall," Spectre, music and lyrics by Jimmy Napes and Sam Smith

MUSIC (Original Score)
Carter Burwell, Carol
Jóhann Jóhannsson, Sicario
*Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight
Thomas Newman, Bridge of Spies
John Williams, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Embrace of the Serpent, Colombia
Mustang, France
*Son of Saul, Hungary
Theeb, Jordan
A War, Denmark

SHORT FILM (Live Action)
Ave Maria 
Day One 
Everything Will Be OK (Alles Wird Gut)

Cartel Land
The Look of Silence
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Winter On Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom

DOCUMENTARY (Short Subject)
Body Team 12
Chau, Beyond the Lines
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
*A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
Last Day of Freedom

Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
*Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Boy and the World
*Inside Out
Shaun The Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

SHORT FILM (Animated)
*Bear Story
Sanjay’s Super Team;
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
World of Tomorrow

Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan and Chris Corbould, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver and Andy Williams, Mad Max: Fury Road
Rich McBride, Matthew Shumway, Jason Smith and Cameron Waldbauer, The Revenant
Richard Stammers, Anders Langlands, Chris Lawrence and Steven Warner, The Martian
*Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington and Sara Bennett, Ex Machina

*Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff and Ben Osmo, Mad Max: Fury Road
Paul Massey, Mark Taylor and Mac Ruth, The Martian
Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Drew Kunin, Bridge Of Spies
Andy Nelson, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Randy Thom and Chris Duesterdiek, The Revenant

*Mark Mangini and David White, Mad Max: Fury Road
Oliver Tarney, The Martian
Martin Hernandez and Lon Bender, The Revenant
Alan Robert Murray, Sicario
Matthew Wood and David Acord, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Hank Corwin, The Big Short
Tom McArdle, Spotlight
*Margaret Sixel, Mad Max: Fury Road
Steven Mirrione, The Revenant
Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Roger Deakins, Sicario
Ed Lachman, Carol
*Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant
Robert Richardson, The Hateful Eight
John Seale, Mad Mad: Fury Road

Siân Grigg, Duncan Jarman and Robert Pandini, The Revenant
Love Larson and Eva von Bahr, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared
*Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardega and Damian Martin, Mad Max: Fury Road

Jack Fisk (Production Design) and Hamish Purdy (Set Decoration), The Revenant
*Colin Gibson (Production Design) and Lisa Thompson (Set Decoration), Mad Max: Fury Road
Arthur Max (Production Design) and Celia Bobak (Set Decoration), The Martian
Eve Stewart (Production Design) and Michael Standish (Set Decoration), The Danish Girl
Adam Stockhausen (Production Design) and Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Henrich (Set Decoration), Bridge of Spies

*Jenny Beavan, Mad Max: Fury Road
Paco Delgado, The Danish Girl
Sandy Powell, Carol
Sandy Powell, Cinderella
Jacqueline West, The Revenant

Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
*Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

WRITING (Adapted Screenplay)
Emma Donoghue, Room
Drew Goddard, The Martian
Nick Hornby, Brooklyn
*Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, The Big Short 
Phyllis Nagy, Carol

WRITING (Original Screenplay)
Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Bridge of Spies
Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, Inside Out
Alex Garland, Ex Machina
Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, Straight Outta Compton
*Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight 

Film Independent Spirit Awards Look Beyond Oscars

As film fans prepare to watch the Oscars tonight, it might be useful to see what happened at yesterday's Film Independent Spirit Awards. Indie films have continued to rise in importance and quality since the Findies began. With nominations and wins for movies like Blue Velvet; Sex, Lies and Videotape; The Secret of Roan Inish; Fargo; Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon; Memento; Precious and Boyhood; the Film Independent Spirit awards have highlighted just how good indie filmmakers can be, paving the way for innovation in studio films, too.

Sometimes -- as with Oscar favorite Birdman last year and 12 Years a Slave and The Artist before it -- the Spirit Awards seem to go to movies that don't seem all that indie. But this time out, as Indie Wire puts it, the awards "presented a striking contrast to the homogenized, fairly conservative set of Oscar nominees." The Oscars may be #SoWhite," but there was room for more diversity under the tent at the Film Independent Spirit Awards.

Idris Elba with Abraham Attah and Beasts of No Nations director Cary Fukunaga at the Academy's Governors Awards
British actor Idris Elba, shut out of Oscar nominations, won Best Supporting Male for Beasts of No Nation, Netflix's first original feature film. Filmed in Ghana, Beasts tells the harrowing story of boy soldiers pushed into war and violence. When Elba won his award, he brought Abraham Attah, the African teenager who played the lead role in Beasts of No Nation -- his first time as an actor -- up on stage with him to celebrate, but when it came time for the Best Male Lead award, Attah won, too, earning his own time on stage. In addition to acting, Elba was one of the producers on the film, which was nominated for five awards.

Brie Larson, who is expected to win Best Actress at tonight's Oscars for her performance in Room, took Best Female Lead at the Spirit Awards, as well. Best Supporting Female went to Mya Taylor for Tangerine, a movie shot entirely on iPhone 5s, involving two transgender prostitutes on a quest in Hollywood on Christmas Eve.

Spotlight, the story of how reporters at the Boston Globe doggedly investigated allegations of molestation and abuse within the local Catholic diocese, took several key awards, including Best Feature, Best Director for Tom McCarthy, Best Screenplay for McCarthy and Josh Singer, and Best Editing for Tom McArdle, as well as the Robert Altman award, given to the director, the casting director and the ensemble cast.

Other awards were spread around more. Ed Lachman took Best Cinematography for CarolEmma Donoghue won Best First Screenplay for the script of Room, and Marielle Heller and her film The Diary of a Teenage Girl were recognized as Best First Feature.

The Look of Silence, about genocide in Indonesia, won Best Documentary, while Hungary's Son of Saul was named Best International Film.

The John Cassavetes Award, for the best feature film made for under $500,000 went to Krisha.

The Hollywood Reporter has the complete list of winners here. If you want to see all the nominees and winners listed by category, the Spirit Award nominees page has the list.

Friday, February 26, 2016


Ah, the Lubitsch touch... Ernst Lubitsch was one of Hollywood's finest directors during its Golden Age, creating a continental world of wit and sophistication, where the elegant thieves of Trouble in Paradise can lift an increasingly intimate array of items -- a wallet, a watch, a garter -- off each other over dinner, where the two clerks in The Shop Around the Corner can wage a war of words even as they fall in love in a romantic version of Budapest that looks like it belongs inside a snow globe.

Lubitsch had the touch all right -- his movies are often about sex, but it's an amusing and knowing kind of sex, never crude, always as charming and sophisticated as his characters.

The two movies I mentioned above were written by Samson Raphaelson, the screenwriter whose dialogue Pauline Kael famously said "had the gleam of appliquéd butterfly wings on a Ziegfield girl's toque." In other words, he was the perfect match for Ernst Lubitsch. But in Ninotchka, the 1939 movie playing late tonight on TCM, the script came from Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch, teaming Lubitsch with Wilder, the clearest heir to his witty, perfectly polished throne.

Ninotchka also gave Lubitsch a chance to work with Greta Garbo, known then as the queen of tragedies. In this movie, the poster makes sure we know that "Garbo laughs," playing off a famous campaign for Anna Christie, her first talkie, when it was all about "Garbo talks!" The fact that she was laughing -- or more specifically, that her character, a stern, all-business Russian woman named Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, begins to lighten up and laugh -- is pretty much the plot of Ninotchka.

In the film, Garbo's Comrade Yakushova comes to Paris to find out what's gone wrong with the mission of three previous emissaries (the wonderful character actors Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach) sent to sell some jewels confiscated in the Russian Revolution. But the Grand Duchess (Ina Claire) who once owned the jewels has sent her own emissary, suave Count Leon, played by Melvyn Douglas, to intercept the three Russians, and he's successfully sidetracked them with all the fine things Paris has to offer, like free-flowing champagne and cigarette girls. Once Nina Ivanovna gets there, she gets to work putting the mission back on track, until Count Leon starts to corrupt her, too.

The last time I talked about Ninotchka, I summed it this way:
Once chilly Comrade Ninotchka comes up against the debonair count and his pencil-thin mustache, she begins to thaw, going so far as to buy a frivolous hat, drink too much and spend the night in his arms. Will love prevail when the Grand Duchess steals back her jewelry? Will Ninotchka's sense of duty to the Soviet state force her to reject Leon's materialistic world? Will she ever find her way back to her Parisian count?

Is there even a doubt?
It's a lovely trifle, a perfect film for midnight (Eastern time -- 11 pm in the Central time zone) on a cold February night. Ninotchka is part of TCM's celebration of the Oscars. It was nominated for four of them, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Garbo, Best Writing for the original story by Melchior Lengyel, and Best Writing (Screenplay) for Brackett, Reisch and Wilder. If you are playing TCM's 360 Degrees of Oscar, look for Melvyn Douglas as the link between The Candidate (the movie before Ninotchka on the TCM schedule) and Ninotchka, and Felix Bressart as the link between Ninotchka and Bitter Sweet, the musical that comes after.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Playwright Lynn Nottage Wins 2016 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for SWEAT

Playwright Lynn Nottage, represented on area stages with last fall's Intimate Apparel at Heartland Theatre, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark the previous year at Illinois State University, and New Route Theatre's productions of Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Ondine, has won this year's Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for her play Sweat.

Sweat was co-commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Washington DC's Arena Stage. It involves a group of friends in Reading, Pennysylvania, America's poorest town, a place where the factory jobs that built the town are disappearing and once-mighty unions are now powerless to protect anybody. When rumors of layoffs at the plant begin, the bonds of friendship and the larger sense of community begin to break into pieces.

In his New York Times review of the Oregon production, Charles Isherwood said, "From first moments to last, this compassionate but cleareyed play throbs with heartfelt life, with characters as complicated as any you’ll encounter at the theater today, and with a nifty ticking time bomb of a plot. That the people onstage are middle-class or lower-middle-class folks — too rarely given ample time on American stages — makes the play all the more vital a contribution to contemporary drama."

Nottage's plays have been performed all over the world, with a production of Ruined in Brazil just last month. She is the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Grant Fellowship and she has won the Pulitzer Prize (for her play Ruined), the ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award (Intimate Apparel), as well as multiple Obies and Drama Desk Awards, and she was a finalist for the Blackburn Prize in 1998 (Mud, River, Stone) and 2009 (Ruined). Like many playwrights, she also teaches; she is a member of the faculty at the Yale School of Drama and an Associate Professor in the Theatre Department at Columbia School of the Arts.

The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize was established in 1978 to recognize women who have written works of outstanding quality for the English-speaking theatre. It is awarded annually, with a $25,000 prize to the winner, a possible Special Commendation of $10,000, and other finalists awarded $5,000 each. The winner also receives a signed and numbered Willem de Kooning print (seen at right) which was created especially for the Susan Smith Blackburn award.

The Blackburn Prize site describes the process this way: "Each year, a specified list of professional theatres throughout the English-speaking world is invited to submit plays for consideration."

They add, "Our permanent list of Finalists, numbering well over 300 plays, has become an important resource for theatres interested in new work. As a direct result of being Finalists, many playwrights have received productions, grants and public recognition. The Prize has motivated women to write for the theatre, and has also fostered the interchange of plays between the United States and Britain, Ireland and other English-speaking countries. It has anticipated later recognition. Eight Finalists have subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize is now firmly established as a highly regarded international competition. There is every indication that it will continue to grow."

This year's finalists included Americans Sarah Burgess for her play Dry Powder; Rachel Cusk for Medea; Sarah DeLappe for The Wolves, Dominique Morisseau for Skeleton Crew; and Suzan-Lori Parks for Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3), along with British playwrights Sam Holcroft for Rules for Living, Anna Jordan for Yen, and Bea Roberts for And Then Come the Nightjars; and Irish playwright Noni Stapleton for Charolais.

Monday, February 22, 2016

HAMLET at IWU Opening Tomorrow

Let Hercules himself do what he may, 
The cat will mew and dog will have his day.

Hamlet, the play in which those lines appear, has enjoyed more than one day since Shakespeare wrote it as the 16th century was turning into the 17th. It is Shakespeare's longest play, one of his most frequently performed plays, and has spawned so many quotes and aphorisms, you can't fit them all on one T-shirt. "The Conscience of the King" is the title of a Star Trek episode, while "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" (and a whole lot more) showed up on a musical episode of Gilligan's Island.

From Stanislavski to Spongebob, from Richard Burbage to Benedict Cumberbatch, Hamlet has staying power.

The newest Hamlet in central Illinois opens tomorrow night in the Jerome Mirza Theatre in McPherson Hall at Illinois Wesleyan University. The poster for director Christopher Connelly's production at IWU has a political, even war-minded edge, reminding us that Hamlet is, after all, a prince who needs to consider what's right for his country as well as his family. In an IWU press piece written by Emily Phelps, Connelly says, "The play is a labyrinth Hamlet wanders in to avoid actually having to accept his responsibility not only for his murdered father and his own weakness of inaction, but also for the increasing obligation to his country."

Senior Steven Czajkowski leads Connelly's cast as the melancholy Dane, joined by Maggie Pratchett as Ophelia, Hamlet's love interest; Alexa Eldridge as his mother, Gertrude; Bucky Emmerling II as Claudius, the scheming uncle who has usurped Hamlet's father as king and as husband to Gertrude; Eli Miller as Hamlet's loyal friend Horatio; Nick Giambrone as Polonius, Ophelia's father and an adviser to the court; Danny Adams as Ophelia's brother Laertes; and Maggie Sperger and Carlos Medina as old school chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Dean Carlson, Cathy Colburn, Forrest Loeffler, Will Mueller, Evan Rumler, Anna Sciaccotta, Yuka Sekine, Alec Sutton and Tuxford Turner round out the ensemble.

Hamlet opens tomorrow night at 8 pm, followed by evening performances through Saturday the 27th and a matinee at 2 pm on Sunday, February 28th. Tickets are $10 for Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, and $12 for Friday and Saturday. Wednesday night's performance is offered free of charge. If you are interested in reserving tickets, you may contact the McPherson box office at 309-556-3232 or click on the Buy Tickets Now link on this page.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

IWU School of Theatre Arts Announces 2016-17 Season

Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Theatre and Dance has announced their 2016-17 schedule for the Jerome Mirza Theatre in McPherson Hall. Details on lab productions will come later, but for right now, here's what IWU has on the horizon:

Dead Man's Cell Phone, Sarah Ruhl's surreal and funny look at mortality and human connection in our  technologically fragmented world, will lead off the season, directed by Dani Snyder-Young in performance October 4 to 9, 2016. Ruhl's play won the Helen Hayes award for Outstanding New Play for its Washington DC premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2007. A well-regarded production at New York's Playwrights Horizons followed in 2008, with Mary-Louise Parker as Jean, the woman who picks up a ringing cell phone next to a dead man in a cafe and starts an odyssey to find out who he was and what it all means. In his review in the New York Times, Charles Isherwood says, "[I]t is the act of answering a phone that draws Jean into the mysteries of life, death and the varieties of love, from the compassion for a stranger that an overheard conversation can evoke to the continuing challenge of romantic intimacy."

In November, Scott Susong will direct The Boys from Syracuse, a Rodgers and Hart musical adaptation of The Comedy of Errors. Broadway legend George Abbott wrote the book of this zany musical comedy about two sets of twins separated as babies and all the hijinks that ensue when they're all in the same place at the same time but unaware they have mirror images. Abbott produced and directed the show in its Broadway premiere, with another legend -- George Balanchine -- as choreographer. Songs include "Sing for Your Supper" and "Falling in Love with Love." The Boys from Syracuse opened on Broadway in 1938 with a cast that included Green Acres' Eddie Albert and Illinois's own Burl Ives, star of song, stage and screen. (You may remember him as the voice of Sam the Snowman in the animated classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, where he sang "A Holly Jolly Christmas," or as Big Daddy in the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  He won an Academy Award for his performance in The Big Country.)  The 2002 Broadway revival at the Roundabout featured a new book by playwright Nicky Silver, with Lee Wilkof and Chip Zien as the two Dromios. The Boys from Syracuse is scheduled to run at the Jerome Mirza Theatre from November 15 to 20, 2016.

Arthur Miller's perennial favorite The Crucible will take the Mirza stage in March, directed by Tom Quinn, with guest Equity actor David Kortemeier brought in to play the role of Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth. On its face, Miller's Crucible is about the Salem witch trials, with proud Salem resident John Proctor trying to stand firm as growing hysteria threatens his household and his neighbors. The Crucible was written in 1953, putting it smack-dab in the middle of the witch hunt conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy under the guise of rooting out Communists in the United States. After his play came out, Arthur Miller was himself questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Coincidentally, so was then-folk singer Burl Ives. (Miller refused to talk, but Ives named names and made a lot of enemies in the folk community.) Look for The Crucible at Illinois Wesleyan University March 7 to 12, 2017.

IWU's 2016-17 season finishes up with the Faculty Choreographed Dance Concert, directed by Sheri Marley, from April 18 to 2, 2017.

Information on the schedule for the E. Melba Johnson Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre will be filled in later. For more details, contact the McPherson Box Office at 309-556-3232.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

New Route Theatre's BLACK VOICES MATTER Festival Starts Thursday

Inspired by the national #BlackLivesMatter movement, New Route Theatre has created a three-day theatre festival they're calling "Black Voices Matter: New Voices, New Plays, New Directions." "Black Voices Matter" showcases new work written, directed and performed by African-Americans from Bloomington-Normal and Chicago.

First up will be the play Shades written by Leola Bellamy, performed on Thursday, February 18th at 7:30 pm. That will be followed by Black, by Kamaya Thompson, scheduled for Friday, February 19th at 7:30 pm. Glass Half Black, by Matty Robinson, takes center stage on Saturday, February 21st, with a matinee at 2:30 pm and and an evening performance at 7:30 pm.

New Route will offer discussions following each performance to give audiences a chance to talk about what they've seen with the casts,  playwrights Leola Bellamy, Matty Robinson and Kamaya Thompson, and directors Jamelle Robinson and Gregory D. Hicks. Because there are three different plays and each post-play discussion will be different, New Route is encouraging audience members to attend every performance.

Although the shows are free, New Route suggests a $5 donation at the door. Performances will take place at the First Christian Church, 401 West Jefferson Street in Bloomington.

Here's the complete schedule:

By Leola Bellamy
Thursday, February 18 at 7:30 pm

By Kamaya Thompson
Friday, February 19 at 7:30 pm

By Matty Robinson
Saturday, February 21 at 2:30 and 7:30 pm.

For more information about New Route Theatre or the "Black Voices Matter" project, please contact Don Shandrow, Artistic Director or Jamelle Robinson, Development Director at or check them out on Facebook.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

CLYBOURNE PARK Opens Tonight at Heartland Theatre

Bruce Norris's Pulitzer Prize winner Clybourne Park opens tonight at Heartland Theatre with a 7:30 pm pay-what-you-can preview. Performances continue tomorrow through Saturday, February 27, with a panel "response" scheduled for after the matinee on Sunday the 21st. Check out all the dates and times of performances here.

Heartland Artistic Director Rhys Lovell directs Clybourne Park, a 2010 play that spins off from Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, a groundbreaking play from 1959. In the earlier play, we meet members of the Younger family, struggling to make ends meet and dreaming of something better than where they live on Chicago's South Side. The Younger matriarch decides to spend a $10,000 inheritance on a house in the fictional Clybourne Park area, an all-white neighborhood where the Youngers are not really welcome. The action of A Raisin in the Sun shows us the conflict inside a black family where different people see their place in society and how to challenge that in very different ways.

Norris looks at the other side of the equation, focusing on the house Mama Younger wants to buy and the couple selling it. In 1959, Bev and Russ Stoller are still grieving the loss of their son and they see selling the house as a way to make a fresh start. Their neighbors try to convince them not to sell, with Karl, the only crossover character from Raisin in the Sun, and a local pastor named Jim arguing that property values will decline as soon as the Youngers move in. The Stollers' domestic help, Francine and Albert, are caught in the middle of the tension, along with Betsy, Karl's wife.

When we flip the script to 2009, Clybourne Park is an all-black neighborhood, but white people are moving back in and gentrifying the place. The actors who played Karl and Betsy are now would-be home buyers Steve and Lindsey, who want to remodel the modest house into something a lot bigger and spiffier. Their plans would mean razing the house, which doesn't sit well with Lena and Kevin, African-Americans who grew up here and want to preserve the history and character of the neighborhood.

Clybourne Park's spark as well as its challenge is that 50-year leap in time between Act I and Act II. Lovell's cast includes Tim Wyman and Kristi Zimmerman-Weiher as Russ and Bev in Act I and Dan, a worker on the renovation project, and Kathy, a lawyer trying to stave off legal objections to it, in Act II. John Fischer and Michelle Woody are Karl and Betsy and then Steve and Lindsey, flipping from the white preservation side to eager renovators; Anastasia Ferguson and Elante Richardson are Francine and Albert, who just want to do their jobs and not get involved in the dispute in 1959, but stand completely on the side of hanging on to their culture and their neighborhood as Lena and Kevin in 2009; and John Bowen plays Jim, the clergyman asked to try to convince the Stollers not to sell to black people, and then Tom, a lawyer hired by Lena and Kevin to stop the gentrification. Joshua McCauley plays Kenneth, a young man who functions as a blast from the past.

If that seems complicated, it really isn't the way it all plays out. Norris's script is especially insightful when it comes to the shifting alliances that unite its characters and the growing tensions that divide them. The humor in the piece is also a strength, making everybody seem that much more real.

After tonight's pay-what-you-can preview, Clybourne Park is scheduled for evening performances at 7:30 pm on February 12 and 13, 18, 19 and 20, and 25, 26 and 27, with a Sunday matinee at 2:30 pm on the 21st.

For more information on all things Clybourne Park at Heartland, follow this link. Rehearsal pictures and more current info have been posted on Heartland's Facebook page here.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Community Players Announces 16-17 Season

Community Players has announced what's in store for 2016-17 at their theater on Robinhood Lane, with six shows on the horizon.

Scheduled for September, 2016, is the comedy Boeing Boeing, a French sex farce from the 60s. It's set in the Parisian bachelor pad of a playboy named Bernard -- the swinging bachelor thing was a standard trope of the 60s, no matter how improbable it seems now -- with hot and cold running stewardesses in and out of the apartment. They are different nationalities, with one who flies for Air France, one for Lufthansa and one for British Airways, and Robert's sex life is carefully calibrated to those airlines' flight schedules. Although the play's English translation was a huge hit in England (playing for seven years), it wasn't as big a deal on Broadway, where it eked out 23 performances in February 1965. Still, it got a movie that same year, with Tony Curtis as Bernard and Jerry Lewis as his old friend Robert, and a popular revival in England in 2007 that brought it back to Broadway

November brings Avenue Q, the sly and irreverent puppet musical that snared the Best Musical Tony in 2004. Avenue Q is a musical meant for the grown-up Sesame Street generation, with puppets who send up characters like Bert and Ernie and Cookie Monster. Avenue Q is quite a bit more adult than Sesame Street, however, as its puppet and human characters (one of whom is named Gary Coleman, like the child actor who was in Diff'rent Strokes way back when) sing about mature issues like sex, racism, pornography and the notion of "schadenfreude," or taking pleasure in someone else's misfortune. It's a lot of fun. Outrageous, absolutely. But fun.

The classic Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire takes the January 2017 slot. Its story of a faded southern belle named Blanche DuBois never goes out of style, perhaps because Blanche is such a great role for a woman who is no longer 20. Actresses like Gillian Anderson, Tallulah Bankhead, Cate Blanchett, Blythe Danner, Uta Hagen, Rosemary Harris, Jessica Lange, Vivien Leigh, Nicole Ari Parker, Natasha Richardson and Jessica Tandy have all taken on Blanche. But it's the role of Stanley Kowalski, Blanche's brutish brother-in-law, that put Marlon Brando on the map. After Stanley, Brando was a star.

Another classic is up next, with West Side Story on the Players stage in March 2017. Leonard Bernstein wrote the music for this updated version of Romeo and Juliet set in 1950's Hell's Kitchen, while Stephen Sondheim did the lyrics, Arthur Laurents wrote the book, and director/choreographer Jerome Robbins gave the original Broadway version its distinctive look and feel. Juliet becomes Maria, a Puerto Rican girl who works in a dress shop, with Tony, a boy of Polish and Irish descent, as her Romeo. Instead of fueding Capulets and Montagues, there are rival gangs -- the Sharks and the Jets -- whose turf war keeps the lovers apart. You will recognize songs like "Tonight" and "America" in West Side Story's fabulous score.

The 39 Steps, a hilarious play inspired by an old Alfred Hitchcock movie, is Community Players' May 2017 selection. Par for the Hitchcockian course, an innocent man is accused of murder and then caught up with an international spy ring (and romance!) when he goes on the run to escape the police and the real murderers. Patrick Barlow's 2005 play version gets its laughs from the fact that only four actors play everybody from the movie, which means rapid costume (and hat and wig) changes, and a general air of craziness as we wait to see how they're going to pull off the next crowd scene. I laughed myself silly the last time I saw The 39 Steps.

The season finishes up in July 2017 with the kid-friendly The Little Mermaid, the stage musical based on the 1989 Disney animated film. The Little Mermaid took a little longer than most to get from screen to the Broadway stage, mostly because they had to solve the problem of how you showcase undersea denizens on dry land. And no, they didn't build a giant aquarium and truck in a whole lot of water. Ariel and her friends the crab, the eels and one special flounder all use stage magic to maintain their seaworthy appearance. The other problem was that a stage version required more songs than the film, but the original lyricist, Howard Ashman, had passed away. The end results includes the Ashman/Menken songs you remember from the movie -- "Part of Your World," "Under the Sea" and "Poor Unfortunate Souls" among them -- with new songs written by movie composer Alan Menken along with new lyricist Glenn Slater. Trivia note for locals: Broadway's Ariel was played by Sierra Boggess, who happens to be the niece of Bloomington-Normal's Nancy Slattery. It's a small world, after all!

And that should get you (and Community Players) from September 2016 to July 2017 with plenty of entertainment. If you are interested in joining in in some capacity, you can find a button that says "Apply Now" at the top of this page.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

It's That Time Again -- February Fever!

I'm late out of the gate, but February entertainment options are not. They're starting up soon, and you need to know to get your tickets, your DVR fired up, or your snacks ready.

Right now, Champaign's Art Theater Co-op is offering Trumbo, the biopic about blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston in the title role. A big part of the Dalton Trumbo story involves the Oscars, as his work won two of them during a time he couldn't take credit for it. An English writer named Ian McLellan Hunter "fronted" for Trumbo on the 1953 film Roman Holiday, which won an Academy Award for its writing, while Trumbo used the pseudonym "Robert Rich" for The Brave One in 1956, another Oscar winner for its story. And this year, Cranston is nominated for his work as an actor in Trumbo. You'll find the film at the Art tonight and tomorrow at 10 pm, with showings at 11:30 am on Saturday the 6th and 2:30 pm on Sunday the 7th and Wednesday the 10th. Yes, those are odd times, but Trumbo is worth a look.

On February 5, Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Theatre Arts presents Sarah Gancher's Klauzal Square, a ghostly story of bullying, religion, and the power dynamic among preteens, inspired by a real Budapest playground built on top of what was once a Nazi mass grave. IWU senior Tyler Stacey directs a cast of five, including sophomore Libby Zabit, who plays Klara, the one with a ghostly friend, along with Hailey Lechelt, Jackie Salgado, Kristin Solodar and Brooke Teweles. Performances of Klauzal Square run from February 5 to 7 in the E. Melba Johnson Kirkpatrick Lab Theatre on the Wesleyan campus. Call the box office at 309-556-3232 for ticket information.

Next week, Heartland Theatre kicks off the winter part of its season with Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris's Pulitzer, Tony and Olivier-winning play from 2010. The play, which functions as a companion piece to Lorraine Hansberry's award-winning A Raisin in the Sun, uses events in one Chicago house, shown in 1959 and then 2009, to illuminate the racial issues underlying where and how we live in America. In the 50s, Clybourne Park is a white, middle-class neighborhood, and a white couple named Bev and Russ are selling their home to a black family. When we see it again in 2009, it has become an all-African-American neighborhood, but white people are trying to move back in, pushing all the black people out and razing houses to the ground in the name of gentrification. The same actors play different people in the two timelines, giving them a chance to take on more than role, in some cases on opposite sides of the issues raised. Heartland Theatre's Artistic Director Rhys Lovell is at the helm of Clybourne Park, with a cast that includes John Bowen, Anastasia Ferguson, John Fischer, Joshua McCauley, Elante Richardson, Michelle Woody, Tim Wyman and Kristi Zimmerman-Weiher. For show dates and times, click here. For reservation information, try this page.

The musical Ragtime takes the stage at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts on February 11 for just one show at 7:30 pm. It's not clear from the BCPA site who is performing this Broadway musical, which played for two years before the turn of the 21st century and earned three Tony Awards, including a Featured Actress win for Audra McDonald, who only had two Tonys back then. Ragtime was her third, but she has six now, if you're keeping track. Ragtime is based on the E. L. Doctorow novel, showing a swirling series of events in American history that involve people from disparate parts of society -- the upper and lower classes, a jazz musician, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe -- against a backdrop of a very American form of music. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty wrote the score, while Terrence McNally wrote the book.

The Illinois State University School of Theatre and Dance also kicks off its 2016 theatre season next week, with Illinois Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Kevin Rich directing... Shakespeare! It's Romeo and Juliet this time, that timeless tale of star-crossed lovers who fall for each other in spite of parental disapproval and a climate of feuds and fighting in old Verona. Romeo and Juliet opens in Westhoff Theatre on February 12, with James Keating and Kaitlyn Wehr as R and J. Performances continue through the 20th, including a 2 pm matinee on the 14th if Romeo and Juliet is your idea of a cool Valentine's date. For more information (including a link to buy tickets), check out this ISU press piece.

If Hamlet is your favorite Shakespeare play (and it is mine), you're in luck. Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Theatre Arts is putting Hamlet on stage at the Jerome Mirza Theater in McPherson Hall on February 23, 24, 25, 26 and 27 at 8 pm and February 28 at 2 pm. IWU professor Christopher Connelly directs Shakespeare's longest play, the tragedy of the Prince of Denmark as he muses on life, death, revenge, and what to do about the rotten state in which he lives. No poster for this one that I could find, so let's content ourselves with a picture of David Tennant as Hamlet on a British stamp from 2011.

Street Scene on Broadway in 1947.
ISU Theatre is back on February 26 with the opera version of Elmer Rice's Street Scene, directed by new faculty member Robert Quinlan. Rice wrote the book of the musical, too, moving the action from a sweltering day on the front steps of a tenement in a "mean quarter of New York" in the 1920's to the same hot spot in 1946. The plot involves various residents of the building, as they gather to gossip, flirt, fight and generally push against each other in their small square of real estate. The opera's music was written by Kurt Weill, while poet Langston Hughes provided the lyrics. The 1947 Broadway production won Tonys for Weill and its costume designer, although it has never been revived on Broadway. When casting was announced, Quinlan's ensemble included Rebecca Crumline as Anna Maurrant, an unhappy woman who lives in the tenement behind the stoop; Joshua Ramseyer as her violently jealous husband; Morgan Melville as their daughter, Rose; and Kevin Alleman as Sam Kaplan, a Jewish boy who's in love with Rose. Street Scene is scheduled for performances in the ISU Center for the Performing Arts from February 26 to March 4. 

Closing out the month, Arts at ICC will present The Dead Guy by Eric Coble, with performances from February 26 to March 6. Coble's 2005 play looks at the continuing appetite for reality TV and the moral price we pay, focusing on a show (also called The Dead Guy) with a shocking premise. Contestant Eldon Phelps gets a cool million dollars to appear on the show, but... There's a big but: Eldon is required to spend the entire amount during one week, with his death looming at the end of it, live and on TV. As he goes through his spending-a-million week, the audience is busy voting on how he should kick his reality TV bucket. Ouch. ICC Theatre is giving you six performances to catch The Dead Guy, with shows on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm starting February 26. I am also without a poster for The Dead Guy at ICC, but Proper Hijinx Productions in Texas has a nifty one for their current production that you can see here.