Thursday, March 31, 2016

IN THE BLOOD Opens Tonight at U of I

Did you read The Scarlet Letter in school? In my memory, my junior high English class wasn't all that thrilled about the assignment, but we slogged our way through, thinking ourselves so much more enlightened than the characters in the book who made poor Hester Prynne wear a scarlet A. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks found something of contemporary significance in Hawthorne's story about illicit love between a hypocritical Puritan minister and the woman who had his baby out-of-wedlock in 17th century Massachusetts, enough to write a modern adaptation in play form. Parks' play In the Blood, based on A Scarlet Letter, was a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The main character in the play is also named Hester, but Parks' modern-day Hester has five illegitimate children by five different fathers, instead of just one, although one is a minister called Reverend D, not unlike Reverend Dimmesdale in the book. Hester and her kids are living in abject poverty, but she has no way of making it better. Used and abused by the system and the very people who should be helping her, Hester is trapped by her own past and the harsh judgments made about her. She's just an irresponsible slut, right? Not so different from Hester Prynne, blamed all by herself for the baby it took two to create.

Lisa Gaye Dixon directs In the Blood for the University of Illinois's Illinois Theatre series, part of a season devoted to works that explore free expression and censorship. The Scarlet Letter has been banned regularly, making In the Blood a perfect part of the dialogue on free expression

Dixon's production of the play opens tonight in the Studio Theatre, a small black box theater inside Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on the U of I campus, with performances continuing through April 10. Click here to see the performance schedule and here for ticket information.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

GREATER TUNA Brings Conklin Players to Washington Five Points

Conklin's Barn may be a thing of the past, but its players have found a new space to play. Greater Tuna, the two-person show about the off-beat residents of a tiny town in Texas, will be on stage at Five Points Washington on April 1, 2 and 3, with Conklin Players Dan Challacombe and Pat Gaik playing everybody in Tuna, Texas, directed by Mary Simon, long-time owner and operator of the Barn II.

"Everybody in Tuna" includes Aunt Pearl, who has a penchant for poison pills (in the middle of the back row in the picture above), Vera Carp, who leads the local Smut Snatchers group (the blonde next to Pearl), put-upon bouffant-wearer Bertha Bumiller (back row, far left), and gun-shop owner Didi Snavely. Didi is the one in camo, with the gun, of course. In front with the DKKK microphone are radio hosts Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie. By my count (if you include Yippy the dog) there are 22 characters in Greater Tuna. The key is that two people play them all, rapidly changing wigs, costumes and props.

Greater Tuna was created by Texans Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, with Williams and Sears originally taking all the roles and Howard directing. The show was a huge success, playing everywhere from Texas to off-Broadway and the White House. It is affectionate and biting, sending up small-town prejudices and provincialism as it makes us care about a pretty awful set of people. My favorite may be juvenile delinquent Stanley Bumiller, but it's hard to beat Aunt Pearl when she feels a song coming on over the coffin of a dead lover.

For tickets to this Greater Tuna, visit the Five Points page. Three performances only, y'all.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Don't Delay -- Individual EBERTFEST Tickets On Sale Friday

The 18th annual Ebertfest, AKA Roger Ebert's Film Festival, has been selling festival passes since last November, but individual ticket sales begin on Friday, April 1. You may be thinking you have no chance if the big passes have been on sale that long, but never fear!

Festival organizers reserve 500 seats at the historic Virginia Theatre in Champaign for individual ticket buyers and sponsors. Even for sold-out performances, there's a rush ticket line, and they assure us that everybody who's waited in those rush lines since 2012 has managed to get in. That means your chances are good if there's something you really, really want to see, as long as you're flexible and determined. All the info on every possible way to get tickets is located here.

So what's on the schedule this year? It's the usual mix of intriguing, obscure and overlooked films, just the kind of thing Ebert himself chose when he was in charge. Chaz Ebert, the woman who was his wife and business partner, now acts as host of the festival.

The film Everybody Wants Some! opens Ebertfest on April 12, 2016 at 7 pm. This brand-new comedy, written and directed by Richard Linklater, who piled up a bunch of awards for Boyhood two years ago, is billed as something in the Dazed and Confused oeuvre. Executive producer Stephen Feder and actor Glen Powell will accompany the film to Champaign.

Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak is up next, with a screening on Wednesday, April 13, at 7 pm. It stars Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston in a gothic horror story fueled by gorgeous, bombastic images and art direction. Del Toro himself will be in attendance as a special guest to discuss his 2015 film.

Thursday's lineup features Grandma from 2015, Northfork from 2004, and The Third Man, a classic from 1949, three very different pieces of filmmaking. Lily Tomlin is the title character in Grandma, a character study that mixes comedy and drama, directed by Paul Weitz, with fine supporting players like Sam Elliott and Marcia Gay Harden in the mix to keep it honest and real. Grandma will be screened at 1 pm on the 14th, with director Weitz and producer Andrew Miano on hand. After that, you'll have a chance to see Northfork, a movie directed by Michael Polish and starring his twin brother Mark at 4 pm. Others in the cast include Nick Nolte, James Woods, Peter Coyote and Darryl Hannah, telling a story set in 1955 Montana, with an orphan who has been abandoned, men in black trying to evacuate a town before a dam floods it, and a trio of angels who may or may not be imaginary.

The Third Man, at 8:30 pm, is a much better-known piece, a noiry post-World War II film that puts Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten in bombed-out Vienna where everybody is up to something and none of it is good. Carol Reed directed, with a screenplay by Graham Greene, Oscar-winning smoky cinematography by Robert Krasker, and a haunting title theme played on the zither. If you haven't seen The Third Man, you absolutely must. And what a coup to have script supervisor Angela Allen on hand. If my math is right and IMDB is to be trusted, Allen will be turning 87 years old this year.

On Friday, the films screened will be Disturbing the Peace, a new documentary about Palestinians pushing peace onto soldiers, at 1 pm; L'inhumaine, a silent film from 1924 that elevates style to the nth degree, at 4 pm; and Eve's Bayou, Kasi Lemmons' 1997 memory piece about an African-American family whose past holds murky secrets, at 8:30 pm. Director/producer Stephen Apkon, director/cinematographer Andrew Young, story consultant Marcina Hale and Chen Alon and Sulaiman Khatib, both subjects of Disturbing the Peace, will attend for that film, while the musical ensemble Alloy Orchestra will be there for L'inhumaine and Kasi Lemmons, who wrote and directed Eve's Bayou, appears to discuss her film.

Force of Destiny, an Australian drama written and directed by Paul Cox, described as "a journey of love on a transplant waiting list," will be screened on Saturday, April 15, at 11 am; followed by Radical Grace, a documentary about "Nuns on the Bus" who crusade for affordable health care, at 2; Love and Mercy, director Bill Pohlad's take on Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys that stars Paul Dano as young Wilson and John Cusack as the older version, at 4:30 pm; and Blow Out, the 1981 Brian de Palma film that tried to riff on Blow Up, a stylish, paranoid little Antonioni movie from 1966, at 9 pm. Force of Destiny director Cox, Rebecca Parrish, the director and cinematographer of Radical Grace, along with her producer Nicole Bernardi-Reis, composer Heather McIntosh and social activist Father Michael Pfleger, and actress Nancy Allen, who starred in Blow Out opposite John Travolta, will appear after their respective films.

All that leaves for Sunday, April 16, is a silent film from 1925 called Body and Soul. It stars Paul Robeson in a dual role as the evil Reverend Isaiah Jenkins and his brother Sylvester, who happens to be the better brother. It was directed by Oscar Micheaux, the first African-American to produce feature-length silent and sound films. This screening will feature a live orchestra performing a new jazz score by Renee Baker to accompany the movie, which will begin at noon.

The whole schedule is available here. Again, details on how to get tickets can be found here.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Celebrating Easter with EASTER PARADE on TCM

Wedged in between Biblical epics like Barabbas and two Kings of Kings and the sweet Going My Way, with Bing Crosby as a singing priest, you'll find a different sort of Easter entertainment tomorrow on Turner Classic Movies.

Easter Parade, which airs at 7 pm Central time, stars Fred Astaire, so of course I can't resist it, even if it isn't really prime Fred Astaire. Still, it is touted as Astaire's (and leading lady Judy Garland's) most profitable film, so there was something there that connected with audiences in 1948.

The movie is set in 1912, when it was very popular for fashionable folk to stroll Fifth Avenue in fancy hats to to celebrate Easter. (It's still a thing, apparently, but it was at the height of its popularity earlier in the 20th century.) The stroll and the bonnets (and Irving Berlin's song which references them) are pretty much all the movie has to do with Easter, but that's not really important. In this one, Fred is a big song-and-dance star named Don Hewes, faced with a temperamental partner named Nadine, played by Ann Miller, who dumps him both romantically and professionally to embark on a solo career.

Don decides to show Nadine that he can do just fine without her, plucking plain Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) out of a chorus to become his new partner. Hannah is very different from the glamorous Nadine; the struggle to find a way to mesh their styles and make the new act work (and fall in love) forms the basis of the rest of the plot.

If I'm honest, I don't think Astaire and Garland are a very good match, and I especially dislike the number where they dress in ragged clothing and pretend to be bums. It's called "A Couple of Swells" and I always try to skip it if I can. But Fred's solo numbers -- "Drum Crazy" and "Steppin' Out with My Baby" -- are quite wonderful, as is the title tune.

If you are looking for a tuneful, colorful way to relax on Easter night, Easter Parade may be just the ticket. It airs at 8 Eastern/7 Central tomorrow night on TCM.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Lisa Loomer's ¡BOCÓN! Opens This Week in ISU's Westhoff Theatre

Although Lisa Loomer's ¡Bocón! is ostensibly a piece of children's theater, its issues are much bigger and more serious than that might imply. The protagonist of this story is Miguel, a boy who is known as a bocón or "big mouth." He lives in a village in Central America at a time of war when speaking out and speaking up are very dangerous things. In fact, Miguel notices that people in his village have a tendency to simply disappear and no one will say where they've gone. Swallowed up by the earth? Taken away by spaceships? How is it possible?

When Miguel's parents are the ones who disappear, the former big mouth loses his ability to speak at all. And so Miguel sets out on a journey to regain his power of speech, but it is a journey filled with spirits, magic, danger and adventure at every turn. Will he make it to Los Angeles? Will he find a way to tell his story and make people hear? What will happen to this child immigrant, one among many set upon American shores?

There is fantasy and mythology in the way Loomer frames her play, which makes it an excellent match with director Cyndee Brown, who has a PhD in theater for young audiences. Brown's cast for ¡Bocón! includes Joshua Pennington as Miguel; Johanna Kerber as La Llorona, the "Weeping Woman" ghost of Central American and Mexican mythology; and Daniel Esquivel, Vanessa Garcia, Natalie Kozelka, Gabrielle Munoz, Samantha Peroutka, Thomas Russell and Nick Scott in multiple roles as the people, animals and spirits surrounding Miguel.

¡Bocón! opens at Westhoff Theatre on the Illinois State University campus on Friday, March 25, at 7:30 pm. Performances continue on the 26th, 29th, 30th and 31st and April 1 and 2 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $10 for students and seniors and $12 for adults, and they are available at the ISU Center for the Performing Arts box office at 309-438-2535 or online at Ticketmaster.

If you would like more information about Cyndee Brown's take on ¡Bocón!, you can listen to her interview with Laura Kennedy at WGLT here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Steppenwolf Theatre Company Announces 2016-17 Season

Steppenwolf Theatre Company has announced its 2016-17 season, the first under new artistic director Anna D. Shapiro. As the 2016-17 season launches, Steppenwolf will offer some changes, with several subscription and flex card options combining shows in the Downstairs and Upstairs Theatres, as well as the launch of a new 80-seat black box theater at 1700 North Halsted. This new space, called 1700 Theatre, is intended to be "casual, intimate and flexible," and it is "dedicated to showcasing the work of the Steppenwolf ensemble and emerging local theater companies."

It will also be home to a performance series they've dubbed Lookout, which will cover a variety of genres and shows, "from dance to live music to spoken word and beyond." The Lookout concept will bow May 31, 2016, with a one-act comedy called Voice Lessons, starring ensemble member (and Illinois State University alum) Laurie Metcalf. Voice Lessons, a comedy by Justin Tanner, concerns a woman who thinks she can sing, played by Metcalf, who looks to a vocal coach, played by French Stewart of Third Rock from the Sun fame, to give her what she needs to get ahead in community theater. Metcalf, Stewart and co-star Maile Flanagan were all with the show when it was in Los Angeles six years ago. Voice Lessons will run till June 12 in the 1700 Theatre.

After Voice Lessons, a production of Byhalia, Mississippi, a play by Evan Linder originally mounted by Linder's New Colony and director Tyrone Phillips' Definition Theatre Company, will move into 1700 Theatre, with performances from July 22 to August 21, 2016. Phillips is graduate of the University of Illinois, making his Steppenwolf debut with Byhalia.

And in the fall, here's what's up in the subscription season:

The world premiere of Visiting Edna by David Rabe, the Tony winning playwright known for Streamers and Hurlyburly, comes to the Downstairs Theatre from September 15 to November 6. Anna D. Shapiro directs Ian Barford, K. Todd Freeman and Sally Murphy in this story about a woman not surprisingly named Edna. "Edna has suffered a number of losses as she has aged, and now faces the stealthy advance of cancer embodied by an intimate figure that she could do without. Home for a visit, Edna’s son Andrew is trying to bridge the gulf between the childhood love they shared and the aggressively polite but baffling relationship they now live with. Mother and son stumble toward honesty as they wrestle with the distractions – both mundane and profound – that keep us from real connection."

That's followed by another world premiere, Erika Sheffer's The Fundamentals, directed by Yasen Peyankov, running in the Upstairs Theatre from November 10 to December 23. Alana Arenas and Alan Wilder will be featured in this "funny and scathing look at America's corporate culture" shown through what happens to Millie, "a smart, resourceful young mother who works as a housekeeper in one of New York’s premiere luxury hotels. When an opportunity to move into management gives her the chance to leave behind her blue collar life, Millie must decide how much, and who, she’s willing to sacrifice to secure her family’s future." 

The winter holidays bring Lucas Hnath's The Christians, part of the 2014 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. After its Kentucky premiere, the play moved to Playwrights Horizons with much the same cast last year, but for Steppenwolf, K. Todd Freeman will be at the helm. The Christians will play in the Downstairs Theatre from December 1, 2016 to January 29, 2017. What's it all about? "Pastor Paul has spent 20 years successfully growing his church from a small storefront to a gleaming megachurch, but now he fears that there may be a crack in the theological foundation. As he shares his new belief in the nature of salvation, the message is met with surprise and then growing trepidation from his closest confidantes in the congregation, threatening to create a schism within the church. Hnath’s fascinating new play looks with great complexity and compassion at the relationship between belief and behavior – and its evenhanded, unbiased take on faith in modern America can be appreciated no matter what you believe." The Christians will represent Hnath's Steppenwolf debut.

Young Jean Lee will direct the Chicago premiere of her play Straight White Men, featuring Tim Hopper and Alan Wilder, scheduled for the Upstairs Theatre from February 2 to March 19, 2017. This "outside look at the traditional father/son narrative" that sheds "new and often hilarious light on a story we think we know all too well" focuses on a widower named Ed as Christmas approaches and his three adult sons come home for the holiday. "Games are played, Chinese food is ordered, and brotherly pranks and trashtalk distract them from the ongoing issue that threatens to ruin the festivities: when personal identity is essential and privilege is a problem, what is a straight white man to do?"

Tracy Letts is back at Steppenwolf after meteoric success with plays like August: Osage County and Superior Donuts. His new play Mary Page Marlowe premieres there in March, but the world premiere of another one – Linda Vista – will bring Letts' work back in March 2017, too. Ian Barford and Tim Hopper will appear in Linda Vista from March 30 to May 21, 2017 in the Downstairs Theatre.  This one is not about anyone named Linda as far as I can tell, but it certainly does sound Lettsian. "Wheeler is 50. His marriage is over, his job is mundane, and the best years of his life appear to be behind him. A move from the cot in his ex-wife’s garage to his own apartment opens up new possibilities for love and sex – complicated, painful and hilarious. Full of opinions, yet short on self-examination, Wheeler is a modern misanthrope who must reconcile the man he has become with the man he wants to be."

The sixth play in the season will be the Chicago premiere of Taylor Mac's Hir, which finished up its run at Playwrights Horizons in January. The Chicago version will feature Francis Guinan and Amy Morton in the Downstairs Theatre from June 29 to August 20, 2017. "The classic dysfunctional family drama has just crashed through into a wholly original place. Meet Paige, a wife and mother liberated from an oppressive and abusive marriage; Max, her newly out transgender son; and Isaac, Max’s PTSD-addled older brother, who discovers a brand new war zone when he comes home from Afghanistan. Hir's crusade to shake up the patriarchy is disarmingly funny, absurd and surprising as it looks at an American family forced to build a new world out of the pieces of the old."

Pass Over, by Antoinette Nwandu, will serve as an additional summer option, with tickets available to "Black Card" subscribers before the public. Featuring University of Illinois grad Jon Michael Hill, Pass Over is described as a "bold, incendiary riff on Waiting for Godot." In Nwandu's take, "two young black men stand around on the corner – talking shit, killing time and hoping that maybe today will be different. When a white man wanders into their space , an escalating crisis threatens to prevent their escape from the block. In Pass Over, pop culture, historical and religious references collide to create a hilarious and disturbing meditation on manhood, race, and the cycle of violence that prevents too many from realizing their full potential." Pass Over will be presented in the Upstairs Theatre from May 25 to July 2, 2017.

For all the information on shows, season subscriptions  and other options, click here or here.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Finalists Announced for Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award

The American Theatre Critics Association has announced the six finalist plays for this year's Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award. This award recognizes the playwrights whose scripts were deemed the best among plays that premiered professionally outside New York City during the previous year.

This 2016 finalists are Steven Dietz for Bloomsday, Samuel D. Hunter for Clarkston, Jen Silverman for The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane, Jonathan Norton for Mississippi Goddamn, Lynn Nottage for Sweat, and Qui Nguyen for Vietgone. ATCA offers more detail on the plays:

BLOOMSDAY by Steven Dietz
"Tender, beautiful, and heartbreaking," said one panelist about Dietz's tale of four – well, actually two – characters meeting on the streets of Dublin. A brief encounter between Cathleen, a guide on a tour of locations from James Joyce's Ulysses, and Robbie, an American who never read the book, is complicated and enhanced by visits from their 35-years-later selves. Yes, we've all seen what-might-have-been stories on stage, but in the words of other panelists, this "artful and elegant," "lovely and thoughtful" play with its "slightly supernatural sparkle" had an ending that's "a genuine epiphany."
Bloomsday premiered at ACT Theatre in Seattle.

CLARKSTON by Samuel D. Hunter
"Deftly entwining a love story with a classic tale," according to one panelist, Clarkston, set in a nondescript town in eastern Washington, "expresses the sorrows and yearnings of working class people who have heavy burdens and few options." It's about the bridging of a divide between a pair of Costco employees, one seriously ill. Although one is a distant relationship of Meriwether Lewis, these two are on very different journeys of discovery in this story that is "told simply with no razzmatazz, just quiet power and characters you care about," a panelist commented.
Clarkston premiered at Dallas Theater Center.

A soccer star is drawn back home in search of her lover, who runs a safe house for women, in this "smart, stunning, excellent" play. It is, according to one panelist, "an illuminating political play that uses memorable, flawed characters to tell a powerful and personal story." Another added that the play is "an assured, fascinating window into the abuse of women in South Africa, but also much more – a lyrical love story, a probe of how media can help and hurt when drawing attention to violence, the conundrum of deciding whether to live in a foreign country where you can be safe and prosper or remain at your own peril in your tumultuous native land."
The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane premiered at Philadelphia's InterAct Theatre.

Norton takes us to the house next door to Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers in this drama about a family making tough decisions in a tumultuous time. "He may have used Nina Simone's song as his title, but the play's content isn't borrowed at all," one panelist commented. Others added that the "fast-moving, dramatic, and revelatory" play with a "truly explosive, molten core" includes "nothing PC or sentimental." The play has, according to another, "a raw quality that actually benefits the tense 'desperate hours' scenario of neighbors and families divided by the insidious pressures of racism."
Mississippi Goddamn premiered at the South Dallas Cultural Center.

SWEAT by Lynn Nottage
Disappearing jobs impact a group of friends in a play that features "great storytelling" with "a rich gallery of characters" and "a compelling story arc," according to panelists. In the great tradition of bar-set plays, “One could say Sweat is about the ways the national economy is shifting away from manufacturing jobs. One could also say it's about parents and children, about how skin color separates in ways we can't/don't often articulate, and about how business decisions made by unseen people in power can destroy lives." It's "an extraordinary play" that "grabs at the beginning and packs a wallop in the end."
Sweat premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

VIETGONE by Qui Nguyen
"A sexy comedy about culture-shocked, grieving Vietnamese refugees who fled to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon? Where everyone is really speaking Vietnamese, but we're hearing it as slangy, cheeky English? I marveled at what this playwright was bringing off," commented one panelist about Vietgone, a very entertaining, fresh tale that slyly reveals its darker contours." Others noted that the play offers "a vivid, specific voice, a wonderful sense of humor and compelling stakes" and that Nguyen "does great things with fine sensibility, language and structure, along with the right mix of lunacy" in style that "is as fresh as the content."
Vietgone premiered at South Coast Repertory.

The top award of $25,000 and two citations of $7,500 each will be presented April 9th at Actors Theatre of Louisville during the Humana Festival of New American Plays. With that $40,000 pool of prizes, the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award is the largest national new play award program.

ATCA has honored new plays produced at regional theaters outside New York City since 1977, with the idea that plays performed in New York are eligible for many more awards than those produced regionally, and a spotlight should be given to those plays in the latter group. No play is eligible for the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award if it has gone on to a New York production within the award year. Since 2000, the award has been generously funded by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust.

Last year the top prize went to Rebecca Gilman for her play Luna Gale. with citations to Lucas Hnath for The Christians and Nathan Alan Davis for Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea. Previous recipients include Adrienne Kennedy, Craig Lucas, Arthur Miller, Marsha Norman, Robert Schenkkan, August Wilson and Lanford Wilson. For a list of all the winners and citation recipients from 1997 to 2014, click here.

Friday, March 11, 2016

St.Icky for St. Pat's? STICKY IN THE STICKS Is Back Tonight in Normal!

It's almost time for St. Patrick's Day, which sometimes seems like the official holiday of bars. Celebrating the holiday that mostly happens in bars with short plays set in bars... It's a natural, right?

Sticky in the Sticks, the local pop-up theatre that exclusively performs pieces set in bars -- and performs them in a bar -- is back tonight, less than a week before St. Patrick's Day.  As usual, they'll be performing at Firehouse Pizza & Pub in Normal, with a musical act starting the show at 8 pm, and the plays kicking off after that opener. This month, the band River Salt is up first. But you'll want to get there well before 8 because space is limited and you'll want a good seat to see all the action up-close and personal.

Sticky, Golden Hazy-style
Tickets are $8 for anyone and everyone -- while all ages will be admitted, these plays can and do contain mature language and situations, so the adults in the party should decide what they think any youngsters with them can handle. Word to the wise: If you do have kids in your group, you will definitely want to get there early to nab a spot in the first row.

Here's the line-up for March:

By Libby Emmons
Cast: J. Michael Grey and Keaton Richard

By J. Michael Grey
Directed by Anthony Loster
Cast: Maureen Sterrenburg, Ben Gorski and Joshua Miranda

By Terri Ryburn
Directed by Bettie Lucca
Cast: Wes Melton, Nancy Nickerson, Terry Noel and Cathy Sutliff

By Libby Emmons
Directed by J. Michael Grey
Cast: Connie Blick and Kari Knowlton

By J. Michael Grey
Directed by Bettie Lucca
Cast: Anthony Loster, Jared Sanders and Lucian Winner

Note that local authors J. Michael Grey and Terri Ryburn are representing Bloomington-Normal, while Sticky (the original, in New York) founder Libby Emmons adds some East Coast style.

Sticky in the Sticks was created by J. Michael Grey and Connie Blick as a spin-off of Emmons' New York original Sticky.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Opening Tonight: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS at Community Players

There's an interesting subset of the musical comedy world that puts horror, science fiction, rock and pop music together with a twisted sense of humor and oddball characters as well as various stripes of aliens, the undead, green slime, and the occasional leather jacket and motorcycle. Rocky Horror, Urinetown, Batboy, Evil Dead: The Musical, Zombie Prom...  There are a bunch of them, but one of the best-known examples of this phenomenon is Little Shop of Horrors.

Little Shop has a situation more recognizable than most, at least at first. Sweet, schlubby Seymour Krelborn slogs away in a low-rent flower shop on Skid Row, dreaming of the day he can get closer to Audrey, his lovely co-worker. Hard-luck Audrey frequently shows up for work with a black eye or broken bone, given to her by her sadistic boyfriend, Orin, a dentist with a real talent for causing pain. It's only when Seymour discovers a fabulous, extra-terrestrial plant during a solar eclipse -- a plant that's puny at first, but thrives once it's fed blood and parts of people -- that Seymour starts to turn around the fortunes of Mushnik's Skid Row Florist and impress Audrey, as well as get rid of the dentist threatening them both. When evil Orin becomes plant food and Audrey admits her love for Seymour, it's a win-win, right? Well, except for that hungry plant, still demanding to be fed.

The Little Shop score was written by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, a duo you may know from the songs in Disney films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and it's every bit as delightful, bouncy and snarky as you might expect, with a soaring love song called "Suddenly Seymour;" a Motown-y girl group that serves as a Greek chorus singing about "Skid Row;" and the show's "I want" song, "Somewhere That's Green," about the suburban greenery Audrey envisions for herself far away from her real hard-scrabble life.

The Community Players' take on Little Shop of Horrors opens tonight with a preview where you are invited to pay whatever strikes your fancy, followed by performances at regular ticket prices March 11 and 12; 17, 18 and 19; and 24, 25 and 26 at 7:30 pm, and March 13 and 20 at 2:30 pm.

For Community Players, Chris Terven plays Seymour, while Aimee Kerber is his Audrey, Scott Myers is Mr. Mushnik, the owner of Skid Row Florists, Alex Knightwright plays Orin Scrivello DDS, and George Jackson III and Joe McCauley share responsibility for Audrey II, the bloodthirsty plant, with Jackson providing the voice and McCauley pulling its strings. Narrators Crystal, Chiffon and Ronnette are played (and sung) by Marita Landreth, Barbara Bouboutsis and Fania Bourn. Others in the ensemble include Wendi Ayers, Darlene Lloyd, Meghan McGuire, Bruce Parrish, Janel Scott, Erica Sommers and Liam Wheeler.

For more information, click here, or try this page if you are ready to buy tickets. You may also contact the Community Players box office at 309-663-2121.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Intertwined Auteurs: Hitchcock/Truffaut

The Normal Theater has started doing more than mere stand-alone programming. Now they're linking the movies they show, like this week and next week's Hitchcock/Truffaut mini film festival.

Those two filmmakers may not seem like the world's most natural connection. Hitchcock, "The Master of Suspense," was known for psychological thrillers and murder mysteries ranging from silent movies in the 20s to classics like Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1963) and he functioned as a pillar of British and American cinema. François Truffaut, on the other hand, was a rebellious film critic/screenwriter/director who wrote for the influential Cahiers du cinéma and attempted to blow the dust off the French film industry with the bold, new auteur theory and by directing Les Quatre Cents Coups or, in English, The 400 Blows, the 1959 movie that helped launch the French New Wave.

But the auteur theory that Truffaut was behind -- where it's the film's director rather than the screenwriter or cinematographer or even the person who wrote the original book who functions as a movie's "author" -- fit Hitchcock, who fiercely controlled every detail of his movies, to a T. In the early 60s, Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock about the older director's process and methods, about film in general, about cats, MacGuffins and Kuleshov, about what Hitchcock was thinking when he made The Lodger and Family Plot and everything else in between, and where he felt he'd succeeded and failed across his career. Truffaut put that together in a fascinating book called Le Cinéma selon Alfred Hitchcock, which became known as Hitchcock/Truffaut (as you can see from the original book cover above) when it was published in the US in 1967.

Last year, Kent Jones and Serge Toubiana decided to do some interviews of their own, but this time, instead of creating a book, they made a movie, as they talked to directors like Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese about how the book influenced their own work. The Normal Theater is celebrating that documentary, also called Hitchcock/Truffaut, by showing a representative Hitchcock film, The Birds, tonight and Saturday, followed by Truffaut's The 400 Blows next Thursday and Saturday, with the film Hitchcock/Truffaut next Friday and Sunday.

The Birds is classic Hitchcock, with our flying friends suddenly and inexplicably deciding to turn evil and attack all the people they see. Tippi Hedren, a quintessential Hitchcock blonde, is the heroine, matched with Rod Taylor as they try to avoid getting pecked to death. Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy are there, too, along with a cameo from Mr. Hitchcock himself (of course). If you've never seen The Birds, you really need to. You'll never look at a gathering of sparrows on a wire the same way again. It will be on screen at the Normal Theater at 7 pm tonight and Thursday, March 5.

The 400 Blows is a very different sort of film -- a contemplative, deeply personal character study that follows the unhappy life of a French schoolboy. At 14, Antoine finds both school and home impossible and repressive, where everyone just wants him to behave but they don't really give him the right tools. Alone and misunderstood, Antoine makes a series of missteps, acting out, skipping school, stealing, lying, and mixing up what's real life and what he's taken from a book. His mother and stepfather wash their hands of him, so he's sent away to a juvenile detention facility that makes his life even more awful. It's a beautiful film, one that continues to show up on lists of the Best Movies Ever. The Normal Theater is offering The 400 Blows at 7 pm on Thursday, March 10, and Saturday, March 12.

Hitchcock/Truffaut, the film that looks at the connection between the two men, as well as the influence of Truffaut's volume of interviews, will be screened at 7 pm on Friday, March 11, and Sunday, March 13. For more details, visit the Normal Theater site here.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Leaping into March

As we vault over the end of February into March, there are a few shows which made the leap with us. And after that, plenty of shows to keep March roaring like a lion all the way to the end of the month.

Illinois State University continues its production of Street Scene, an opera version of the Elmer Rice play about the denizens of a tenement on a hot day in New York City, with the action shifted to 1946. Kurt Weill wrote the music, with poet Langston Hughes providing the lyrics for this look at the overlapping lives of ordinary working people of different ethnicities and clashing personalities.  Street Scene opened last week, but there are four performances left this week. You have a choice of tonight, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday at 7:30 pm at the ISU Center for the Performing Arts. Click here for more information on upcoming ISU productions or here for ticket info.

Also continuing this week is Dead Guy, a darkly funny play about the dangers of reality television written by Eric Coble, on stage at Illinois Central College in East Peoria. You can tune in to Dead Guy March 4, 5 and 6 at the ICC Performing Arts Center.

Eurydice opens tomorrow night at Eureka College, with performances through the weekend. This surreal, lyrical Sarah Ruhl play takes a different look at the myth of Orpheus, putting Eurydice in the center of the story. Instead of a look at a man who ventures into Hell to find his bride, Ruhl's play takes us along with Eurydice, the woman who dies on her wedding day, as she acclimates to a new world -- the world of the dead -- and how she reacts when her groom comes in search of her. Click here for more information on Eurydice in Eureka's Pritchard Theatre.

You'll find the funny science fiction/horror musical Little Shop of Horrors playing at Community Players in Bloomington from March 11 to 26. The sci-fi and horror come in the form of a "mean green mother from outer space," a bloodthirsty plant known as Audrey II. Little Shop started as a super-cheap black-and-white movie supposedly made in two days by legendary director Roger Corman, with Jack Nicholson in a small role as a dental patient who loves to feel pain. That cult classic spawned an off-off-Broadway musical (that quickly moved off-Broadway and eventually got to Broadway) with music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. The stage musical was turned into a bigger-budget* movie with Rick Moranis and Steve Martin in the cast, along with Ellen Greene, who'd played Audrey I when the show was off-off and off-Broadway.  For Community Players, Chris Terven plays Seymour, the lowly floral shop clerk who loves a girl named Audrey (Aimee Kerber) from afar and raises Audrey II (voice by George Jackson III) from a sprout into a giant green monster. For more information on all things Little Shop at Community Players, click here.

If you've enjoyed Sticky in the Sticks -- pop-up theater in the form of ten-minute plays set in and performed at a bar -- you'll want to make sure you get to the newest edition, Spring Sticky on March 11. As always, Sticky plays at the Firehouse Pizza and Pub in Normal. This time out, you'll see actors like Connie Blick and J. Michael Grey, co-founders of the B-N "in the Sticks" version of Sticky, along with Ben Gorski, Kari Knowlton, Anthony Loster, Wes Melton, Joshua Miranda, Nancy Nickerson, Terry Noel, Keaton Richard, Jared Sanders, Maureen Steerenburg, Cathy Sutliff and Lucian Winner. Plays performed include work by local author Terri Ryburn and Libby Emmons, Sticky's original New York founder. Admission is $8 for everyone -- you don't have to be over 21 to get in, but you should be aware that the material performed may have mature themes and language. The show will begin at 8 pm, with local folk/blues duo River Salt as the opening act. Be advised to be there early to get a good seat, since the space in the bar is limited.

Illinois State University's Department of Theatre and Dance brings ¡Bocón!(The Big Mouth) by Lisa Loomer to Westhoff Theatre March 25 to 27, 29 to 31 and April 1 and 2. Dr. Cyndee Brown directs this "imaginative fable for the whole family, interweaving fantasy with the violent reality of the 1980s war in El Salvador." Although the show is intended for all ages, the issues involved are deep and real, as a boy named Miguel loses his parents to "enforced disappearance" for opposition to the political regime. Miguel, too, is silenced, and he must take a long journey to find his voice and himself.  Joshua Pennington plays Miguel in this production, with Daniel Esquivel, Vanessa Garcia, Johanna Kerber, Natalie Kozelka, Gabrielle Muñoz, Samantha Peroutka, Thomas Russell and Nick Scott in the ensemble.

Those are the events that rose to the top of my list, but I'll have more about the Normal Theater and its Hitchcock/Truffaut pairings, the University of Illinois's Grapes of Wrath and In the Blood, and whatever else crosses my desk.

*The story goes that the original 1960 Little Shop of Horrors was made for about $25,000 while the 1982 musical movie was budgeted at about $25,000,000. That's 25 thou to 25 mil.