Thursday, April 28, 2016

Celebrating Shakespeare's 400th in Gashlycrumb Fashion

Last weekend marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. This was celebrated worldwide, but especially in England, where all kinds of events have been happening, like the Royal Shakespeare Company's star-studded Shakespeare Live!, which is supposed to be shared in cinemas worldwide in May. In the United States, Chicago has also made a splash with its ongoing mix of art, theater, video and food.

I was moved to celebrate in my own way by composing a faux-Gorey poem (like the "Gashlycrumb Tinies" and their rhyming couplets) covering some of the deaths in Shakespeare. This isn't the sort of thing I usually do -- I do not believe I have the rhyming gene and I'm terrible in general when it comes to poetry -- so when the idea struck me, I asked my husband to help. He does have the rhyming gene and he's much better with rhythm and meter. I shared the ones I knew I wanted to start with, the famous, funny ones like Antigonus, who was pursued by a bear, and Tamora's sons, who were baked in a pie by Titus Andronicus. My husband said immediately that he felt certain someone else (or several someone elses) had already done up Shakespeare's deaths a la Edward Gorey and I said, oh well, I'm having fun, I don't want to see what other people have done and get their choices in my head, so I'm just going to do it, anyway. He also noted that I was going to have trouble when I got to X, Y and Z, and I said, well, I have Y, anyway, what with Yorick and the skull plucked from a grave in Hamlet, and surely Shakespeare referred to somebody like Zeus at some point. Maybe I'd even get lucky and find a Xanthus or Xenia.

So off I set, armed with my copy of "Who's Who in Shakespeare." I traversed X just fine, what with Petruchio invoking the name of Xanthippe in The Taming of the Shrew, but there was no Zeus, only Zenelophon. And when I googled Zenelophon to see who she was, I mistakenly typed "Zenepholon" instead, and one Twitter post popped up, because it also spelled it wrong. It was part of a conversation from someone named Robin Johnson who'd done a Gorey-esque poem about the deaths in Shakespeare! In April 2015! And so my husband was right again.

Since I was already at Z, I didn't think I would be unduly influenced, so I read Robin Johnson's poem, which doesn't have that much overlap in terms of who he chose or how he dispatched them, but is better than mine in several ways -- it scans much better, plus he was much more clever with Hamlet and some others -- but I do prefer my Xanthippe and Zenelophon. He also seems to have concentrated on more major characters, so he has Anthony instead of Antigonus, for example. But Antigonus and his bear were one of the reasons I undertook it, so I wasn't at all sorry to have kept them. When it got to Z, Johnson's poem went with "in 38 plays, no one's name starts with Z," with his British Z pronounced "zed," which rhymes with "York, whom the queen orders dead." That's all nifty, but I was determined to find a way to work with Yorick and Zenelophon.

In the end, here's what I did:

A is for Antigonus, pursued by a bear
B is for Banquo, not really there

C is for Cleopatra, dispatched by an asp
D is for Desdemona, choked in jealousy's grasp

E is for Emilia, a victim of rage
F is for Falstaff, dying off-stage

G is for George, the one drowned in a butt
H is for Hamlet, slashed by Laertes' cut

I is for Iras, loyally bit
J is for Julius, a political hit

K is for Katherine, lonely and sad
L is for Lavinia, killed by her dad

M is for Macbeth, slain by one ripped from the womb
N is for Ninus, who had a big tomb

O is for Ophelia, submerged in a brook
P is for Polonius, for a rat mistook

Q is for Quintus, beheaded, of course
R is for Richard, who needed a horse

S is for Suffolk, banished to die
T is for Tamora's sons, baked in a pie

U is for Uther, carried on a cot
V is for Vaughn, executed in a plot

W is for Wolsey, to his king untrue
X is for Xanthippe, a scold and a shrew

Y is for Yorick, his skull polished clean
Z is for Zenelophon, from beggar to queen

And that's what I did on the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. I may not have put this up on April 23rd, but I did write it on the 23rd. My husband didn't want to comment on my meter (he is too kind) but I know I am no master. I just had fun. (J is for Julie, who died via rhyme...)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Humana Festival 2016: Sarah Ruhl's FOR PETER PAN ON HER 70th BIRTHDAY

If there was a marquee event at this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays, it had to be Sarah Ruhl's For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday.

Ruhl is currently at the top of the American playwriting ladder; her In the Next Room, or the vibrator play had a Broadway production with multiple Tony nominations, while Stage Kiss, eurydice, Dead Man's Cell Phone and The Clean House (among others) played Off-Broadway and have subsequently been produced all over the country, including across central Illinois. Ruhl was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant, as well as winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the Whiting Award, the Lilly Award and a PEN Award.

When Ruhl came to Louisville for the Humana Festival, her play got Actors Theatre's artistic director, Les Waters, as its director, with an A-list cast, including Kathleen Chalfant, a multiple Tony nominee herself. It doesn't get much better than that.

Kathleen Chalfant in For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday.
Photo Credit: Bill Brymer

So how did her Peter Pan do? In performance, Ruhl's script for Peter Pan showed enough wit to keep it buoyant, a sweet affection for its characters, especially Ann, the one played by Chalfant, and just a shade of sadness. You might expect "I don't want to grow up" as a theme, given the title, and that's definitely there, but it's part of a larger issue, when growing up involves saying goodbye to the generation ahead of us.

It's become something of a running joke that critics inevitably try to find some sort of overall theme for each year's Humana Festival, although the people at Actors Theatre swear they don't pick plays to suit any one idea. This year, American Theatre's Russell M. Dembin touches on the theory that ghosts provided the Festival's throughline. While there were certainly a number of ghosts, for me, confronting mortality emerged as a more pervasive theme, especially within parent/child relationships. That's front and center in For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, as Ann and her siblings gather to deal with their father's death.

The cast of For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday.
Photo credit: Bill Brymer
When the play opens, Ann, her sister Wendy, and her brothers Jim, John and Michael sit and wait in their beloved dad's hospital room. Two of Ann's brothers are doctors, as was their father, so they're well aware he doesn't have much time. From there, the play moves to the five of them at the old kitchen table, drinking, reminiscing and arguing during Dad's wake, and then into a sort of dream sequence where each takes on a role in Peter Pan, which Ann starred in as a child.

I don't know how many 70-year-old actresses there are in the world who'd be willing to step into Peter Pan's tights and fly around the stage, but Chalfant is game, as are the younger-but-not-exactly-young Lisa Emery, who plays Wendy, and Scott Jaeck (John), David Chandler (Jim) and Keith Reddin (Michael). The roles they play in Ann's life are reflected in their Peter Pan roles, as well, although the political talking points they hurl at each other and how that sets up Captain Hook in the play-within-a-play come off somewhat forced as a dramatic device.

What was best about the Humana Festival For Peter Pan was, in a word, Chalfant. She had the audience in the palm of her hand from her curtain speech to her flying game, and she made Ruhl's words come alive with the elegance and expertise of her delivery. Looking at the words on the page, I found they don't seem nearly as funny as they did when Kathleen Chalfant was saying them.

Ron Crawford, who played the father they'd all come to honor, also emerged as a major presence in the play, even when he was lying motionless in a hospital bed. His contributions to the second scene -- what Ruhl calls "Movement Two: The Irish Wake" -- were especially well-received, as his timing and wry humor paid off nicely.

Chandler, Emery, Jaeck and Reddin each etched an individual portrait and together with Chalfant, they created a recognizable family dynamic, the kind where being together throws you right back up against the same buttons you've been pushing since you were kids. We don't really ever grow up, after all.

One other strength: A local marching band that came in to cover the scene change between Movements One and Two, playing "When the Saints Go Marching In." It was perfect. Here's hoping other productions will find their own marching bands if For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday pops up in regional theaters.

Friday, April 22, 2016

OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD Puts on a Play for Bradley University Theatre

Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good has been a popular choice for theatres ever since Wertenbaker wrote the play in 1988. The script may be catnip for directors and actors because it's about theater, about the power and danger of bringing drama to people at the bottom of the social ladder, but it also delves into colonialism, the long reach of the British Empire, crime and punishment, sex, class and love, and how human beings try to keep their humanity alive.

All of that is wound around the story of a group of convicts in 18th century Australia putting on a play -- George Farquhar's Restoration comedy, The Recruiting Officer -- as directed by their British overlords. The convicts, all sent to an Australian penal colony for offenses back in England, are very different people, but they're all in desperate straits, with nothing to call their own. It's how they interact with and affect the Royal Marines who are in charge of them that forms the drama in Wertenbaker's play, with one indigenous Australian who keeps a watchful eye on the proceedings.

Bradley University's production of Our Country's Good opened last night in the Meyer Jacobs Theatre in the Hartmann Center for the Performing Arts. Assistant Professor Susan Felder directs a cast that includes Trevor Baty, Cody Cornwell, Amanda Dacks, Chris Dolphin, Cassy Lillwitz, Kyle Peck, Ali Pinkerton, Aris-Allen Roberson, Ellie Stamper, Derek Yeghiazarian and Samantha Zucker in multiple roles, crossing over between officers and convicts. The cast and crew shared mug-shot style photos of themselves that you can see here:

Click on the photo to see it larger size.

Performances of Our Country's Good continue at Bradley through May 1 at 8 pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2:30 pm on Sunday. For ticket information, call 309-677-2650, visit or check out the production's Facebook page.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

New Route Theatre's VOICES OF PRIDE Starts Friday

New Route Theatre's Voices of Pride Festival of new plays begins this week, with staged readings presented Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Bloomington's First Christian Church at 401 West Jefferson Street. Tickets will be available at the door for a suggested donation of $10. This event is dedicated to the memory of Phil Shaw.

This festival, which consists of four new plays with LGBT themes, is presented in conjunction with the Prairie Pride Coalition. Illinois State University Assistant Professor Duane Boutté curated the program and directs two of them. Here's the schedule of events:

7 pm
garbage can blues, written by Paula Ressler, Associate Professor in the English Department at Illinois State University. Directed by Duane Boutté.

8:30 pm
ReConnect, written by DC Cathro, a playwright from Maryland. Directed by New Route Theatre Artistic Director Don Shandrow.

7 pm
Thingification, written and performed by Duriel E. Harris, a Creative Writing Associate Professor in the English Department at Illinois State University. Directed by Duane Boutté and assistant directed by Gina Cleveland.

8:30 pm
Bedfellows, written by Daniel Kipp, a playwright from Rock Island who is also a graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University. Directed by Don Shandrow.

2 pm
garbage can blues  


6 pm

7:30 pm

Peg Kirk and Troy Schaeflein are the cast of Paula Ressler's garbage can blues, described as "the haunting tale of a lesbian mother struggling to come to terms with the circumstances of her son's demise as she questions any role she may have played. Performed in a single act, garbage can blues reads with artful precision. Mrs. Ressler's careful strokes paint a mother-son relationship that delivers enduring questions about society's judgement of non-traditional families, and its affect on modern youth."

Cathro's ReConnect features Nathan Brandon Gaik, Brigette Richard, George Jackson, Joseph Johnson, Samuel James Willis, Daniel Esquivel, Marya Manak, Kelsey Brunner, Rachel Hettrick, Anastasia Ferguson and Graham Gusloff in a "a delightfully poignant series of six short one act plays that center on the reunions of eleven different people and the surprise, pain and awareness that reconnecting brings.

Thingification expands on performance poems by Harris called "Phaneric Displays," and it includes excerpts from other published works from Harris like "Amnesiac: Poems, and Drag." In Thingification, Harris will perform "a progression of vivid characters from southern cotton fields to big city dance clubs, resulting in a compelling discourse on African American identity and empowerment."

Duane Boutté and Dave Krostal are featured in Kipp's Bedfellows, which covers three different moments in the lives of two men, focusing on "their relationship during moments of dynamic political change. They meet on election night of 1992. We then see them just before the election in 2000 and then finally just after the election in 2008. A bittersweet exploration of how time and politics influence a relationship."

New Route Theatre and Artistic Director Don Shandrow have indicated that they hope to make this an annual event to go along with the Black Voices Matter festival presented in February.

For more information regarding New Route Theatre and the Voices of Pride Festival, you are asked to contact Shandrow at or visit the New Route Facebook page.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Pulitzer Prize for Drama Goes to Lin-Manuel Miranda and HAMILTON

Hamilton, the incredibly popular musical created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has been awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Pulitzer committee calls Hamilton, "A landmark American musical about the gifted and self-destructive founding father whose story becomes both contemporary and irresistible."

Hamilton becomes only the ninth musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama since it started in 1918, after Of Thee I Sing* by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind and Ira Gershwin, awarded in 1932; South Pacific by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, in 1950; Fiorello! with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, awarded in 1960; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows,  in 1962; A Chorus Line, by by Michael Bennett, James Kirkwood, Jr., Marvin Hamlisch, Nicholas Dante and Edward Kleban, awarded in 1976, Sunday in the Park with George, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, in 1985; Jonathan Larson's Rent in 1996, and Next to Normal, by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, in 2010.

This year's finalists were Gloria, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' "whip-smart satire" that looks at media, violence and ambition, and The Humans, Stephen Karam's unsettling drama about a middle-class family in decline.

*The Pulitzer Prize for Of Thee I Sing did not include George Gershwin, who composed its music. Richard Rodgers, who wrote the score for South Pacific, was a recipient, however, as the Pulitzer committee had decided by that point that a musical's music was an important part of its overall worthiness for the award.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Qui Nguyen Wins Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award for VIETGONE

Image for The Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Qui Nguyen's Vietgone
This year's top Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award has been awarded to Qui Nguyen's Vietgone, called "an all-American love story about two very new Americans" in South Coast Rep's description of the play's premiere production last year. The quote continues: "It’s 1975, and Saigon has fallen. He lost his wife. She lost her fiancé. But now in a new land, they just might find each other. Using his uniquely infectious style The New York Times calls 'culturally savvy comedy'—and skipping back and forth from the dramatic evacuation of Saigon to the here and now—playwright Qui Nguyen gets up close and personal to tell the story that led to the creation of…Qui Nguyen."

Qui Nguyen
Vietgone is currently playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; it will play Off-Broadway this fall, with previews beginning October 4 at New York City Center's Stage I, presented by Manhattan Theatre Club.

The Steinberg/ATCA New Play Awards recognize playwrights for outstanding work that premiered professionally outside New York City during the previous year. The prize comes with a $25,000 top award, this year given to Nguyen, along with two $7500 citations, which were awarded to Steven Dietz, for his play Bloomsday, and Jen Silverman, for her play The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane. With a combined cash prize of $40,000, the Steinberg/ATCA Award is the largest national new play award program of its kind. 

Dietz's Bloomsday received its world premiere at ACT Theatre in Seattle. ATCA panelists who read the play during judging described it as "Tender, beautiful, and heartbreaking." The play involves two characters, one a Dublin guide who takes people to see locations from James Joyce's Ulysses and the other an American who isn't at all familiar with the book. Their brief meeting is "complicated and enhanced by visits from their 35-years-later selves.

The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane is set in a safe house for women in South Africa, with Silverman using the story of a soccer star who returns to her native land in search of a missing lover who also happens to be a political activist to explore issues of violence toward women, media and politics, and what it means to go home again. Silverman's play was first produced at Philadelphia's Interact Theatre Company.

The other three finalists for the award were Samuel D. Hunter for Clarkston, Lynn Nottage for Sweat, and Jonathan Norton for Mississippi Goddamn. Norton took home the 2016 ATCA M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award, which was also awarded April 9, during the final weekend of the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. The American Theatre Critics Association gives the Osborn New Play Award to an emerging playwright who has not yet received national attention.

Lou Harry, arts and entertainment editor for the Indianapolis Business Journal and chairs ATCA's New Plays Committee, which selects honorees for both the Steinberg/ATCA Awards and the Osborn Award.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Tonight's the Night for AN EVENING with Eli Van Sickel (and Friends)

Illinois State University alum Eli Van Sickel is directing An Evening full of theatre. And it's in Chicago. Tonight. More specifically, An Evening is tonight at 7 pm at Lifeline Theatre.

Van Sickel has put together a program of short scenes, with selections from newer work like John Logan's Red, Neil Labute's Reasons to Be Pretty, Julia Jordan's Nightswim and Songs for a New World, Jason Robert Brown's heartfelt song cycle, along with classic pieces like Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac and Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty.

This is how Eli describes his Evening:
Eli Van Sickel has spent his entire life in the theatre. He holds a BS in Directing from Indiana State University and an MS in Theatre Studies from Illinois State University. He has worked professionally as a freelance sound designer for the last eight years. He has not directed a play since he was in school, five years ago. He has been too afraid to pursue a career as a theatre director...until now. In order to dust off the cobwebs and see if he’s worth a damn, Eli has put together an evening of scenes entitled AN EVENING. The performance will take place on Wednesday, April 13 at 7 pm at Lifeline Theatre.
David F. Meldman and James Martineau will perform the Red scene, with Devon Nimerfroh and Kristen Hughes in Reasons to Be Pretty, Mitch Conti, Gerrit Wilford, and Andrea Williams taking on Cyrano, Alyssa Ratkovich, Kent Nusbaum and Joe Faifer in Waiting for Lefty, Courtney Dane Mize performing part of Songs for a New World, and Gaby Fernandez and Emily Willis in Nightswim. Michael Evans is the Evening's musical director and pianist and Slick Jorgensen is the lighting designer.

Conti, Faifer, Fernandez, Martineau, Nimerfroh, Nusbaum, Ratkovich and Williams all have ISU connections, and you may remember them from work on Bloomington-Normal stages. Meldman has a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MFA in acting from Florida Atlantic University, Willis is a Northwestern grad, Mize has a degree from Ole Miss, Wilford studied at the other Northwestern in Iowa, and Hughes earned her BA from Indiana University in the other Bloomington.

All of which adds up to a lot of talent in one place at one time. If you're wondering why this show now, Eli offers this inspirational program note:
All of us are relatively new to Chicago. We are looking for opportunities. We are looking for artistic homes. We are looking for people to take chances on us. We have devoted our lives to our craft and we are ready to do great things within it.
You have to root for that, right? Let's hope this Evening is the first in a long line of great things for all of them!

Heartland Theatre Announces 2016-17 Season

Heartland Theatre Company has announced its upcoming season, starting with the 15th annual 10-Minute Play Festival set for June 2016, and ending with Anna Ziegler's Photograph 51, scheduled for performances in April 2017.

Here are all the details:

2016 10-Minute Play Festival 
June 2 to 25, 2016

In any given ART GALLERY, you may run into old masters, new masters, pop art, papier-mâché, maybe even something unexpected, something that completely changes the way you see the world. Artists, critics and patrons may not agree on what's worth bidding on, oohing and ahhing over, winning a prize, or even calling art in the first place, but that's where the fun starts. And who knows? You may find you're part of the installation in Heartland Theatre's ART GALLERY 10-Minute Play Festival.

FIGHTING WORDS by Sunil Kuruvilla
September 8 to 24, 2016

In September, 1980, three women in the tiny Welsh village of Merthyr Tydfil wait, worry and watch, pinning their hopes and dreams on a bantamweight boxer named Johnny Owen, who has traveled all the way from Wales to Los Angeles to fight for a world championship. Every man in town who could scrape up the money is in California with their favorite son, but sisters Peg and Nia and their landlady Mrs. Davies are left behind. To pass the time before the bout is on television, they bake, they talk – and they fight – about their futures and fears and how they live their lives in this sorrowful mining town.

THE HOMECOMING by Harold Pinter
November 3 to 19, 2016

Like many of Harold Pinter's plays, The Homecoming begins with a seemingly innocuous event. Teddy, a philosophy professor who's been living in America, brings his wife Ruth to his father's home in North London to introduce her to his family. Teddy may work in an ivory tower, but the home he is returning to is somewhere harsher and darker. His dad was a butcher, his uncle is a chauffeur, one brother is in demolition, and the other is a vicious pimp. Given all of that, it should come as no surprise when menace, bitterness and violence bubble under the surface of this venomous family reunion. Winner of the 1967 Tony Award for Best Play.

SONS OF THE PROPHET by Stephen Karam
February 9 to 19, 2017

Family legend says that brothers Joseph and Charles Douaihy are distantly related to Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet. Through a series of odd misfortunes and accidents, the family has suffered recently – their father died, Uncle Bill is getting trickier to handle, and Joseph is feeling mysterious pains he can't explain. But if Joseph is willing to trade on the Prophet connection, he might just be able to sell a book, get health insurance, and keep the Douiahy family alive. At New York's Roundabout Theatre, Sons of the Prophet was called "the funniest play about human suffering you're likely to see."

PHOTOGRAPH 51 by Anna Ziegler 
April 6 to 22, 2017

Dr. Rosalind Franklin was one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, one whose expertise with X-rays put her ahead of the pack when it came to solving the mysteries of human DNA. But Dr. Franklin was a woman. A chilly, fiercely independent woman who did not suffer fools gladly. And her colleagues and rivals did not appreciate much about her. When it came time to hand out Nobel Prizes for the discovery of the double helix, Dr. Franklin's name was nowhere to be found. Photograph 51 is a funny and moving portrait of the life and career of Rosalind Franklin, a woman way ahead of her time.

Heartland's Flex Passes, which offer six tickets to be used good for the performances listed above, will be available for order May 1. Flex passes are priced at $60 for seniors and $75 for general admission. For individual shows, regular ticket prices are $15, with senior discount at $12 and students at $5. 

Heartland also offers two events not included in season passes. There's the Young at Heartland Summer Showcase, when "Heartland’s senior acting program struts its stuff on stage." This summer, Young at Heartland will perform their showcase on June 17 and June 22. There is no charge for admission, although donations are welcome at the door.

The second special event is the Mike Dobbins Memorial New Plays from the Heartland, when three new winning one-act plays from written by Midwestern playwrights are presented as staged readings. A nationally known playwright also comes to town to conduct a workshop with the winning playwrights and deliver a forum, open to the community. The New Plays from the Heartland events, which are made possible by the Town of Normal Harmon Arts Grant and sponsored by Paul and Sandra Harmon, will take place between July 14 and 17, 2016.

For more information, visit or email Gail Dobbins, Heartland's DIrector of Marketing and Operations, at

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Checking Into Laura Jacqmin's RESIDENCE at the 2016 Humana Festival

A hotel can be a weird little world of its own. You can sleep, eat and entertain yourself there, and communicate with the outside world without ever leaving your room. And for the employees...

I speak from experience when I say that a hotel can become your world, too. A long time ago, I was a front desk clerk (and before that, switchboard operator, pool attendant, room service waiter and hotel babysitter) at a large resort near my parents' house. Every summer, I would dream of a job elsewhere -- maybe at the mall where I could get a discount on clothes -- but I always ended up back at the hotel, picking up a uniform and getting to work. Let's just say I had a love/hate relationship with that hotel.

The characters in Laura Jacqmin's Residence , the first play I saw at the 40th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, have a similar outlook. There's Maggie, checking in for four weeks while she tries desperately to make a sale with medical equipment, Bobby, a charming man on staff who appears to fill in wherever he's needed -- bellman, chauffeur, whatever -- and Theresa, the bright-eyed management trainee who dreams of earning a "manager" badge. All three have issues that interfere with their jobs, issues from the outside world that push them closer toward a precipice of no job, no prospects, no hope. Who will fall over the edge first?

Danielle Slavick in Residence. Photo credit: Bill Brymer
During Residence, we see the connections they make together, as each tries to maintain some kind of stability. Theresa is determined to show every guest (and in this case, that means Maggie) a "five-star experience," while Bobby wants to get high and flirt with Theresa. As for Maggie... We see her secrets unwind over FaceTime conversations with her husband and baby back in Wisconsin.

Jacqmin writes smart, sharp dialogue that pulls us in and makes us hope for the best for these three, even if Maggie's job selling ultrasound equipment, her back story and Bobby's outside life dovetail a little too neatly. There are mixed messages in the script -- Is it about friendship and community in a strange place? Growing up and becoming a responsible adult with all the burdens, financial and emotional, that entails? The American way of debt, especially when it involves education and healthcare? -- and some of the plotlines get a little lost as it moves on. Under the direction of Hal Brooks, the Humana Festival production looked so good and moved so well it disguised some of the lapses in the script, but it seems unlikely other theatres will be able to recreate Daniel Zimmerman's fantastic set that dropped a pool deck and firepit over a hotel room in Actors Theatre's black-box Bingham Theatre. Still, for me at least, the hotel environment and the real, recognizable characters made an emotional impact.

Leah Karpel (L) and Alejandro Rodriguez in Residence. Photo credit: Bill Brymer
Among the cast, Alejandro Rodriguez is perfect as Bobby, the catalyst for much of what happens at the Residence hotel, and Leah Karpel gives us a Theresa who is so sweet and adorable I felt like offering to kick in to a GoFundMe for her fictional tuition bill. Danielle Slavick makes Maggie as edgy and unhappy as she needs to be, building nicely to an explosive confrontation where her acting partner is on screen instead of in person, but also telegraphing early on that there is something very wrong with this woman. Would any husband really send someone so fragile out into a hostile world for four long weeks?

The good news is that Residence made me ponder issues like that.

Residence ran from March 2 to April 10, 2016, at Actors Theatre of Louisville's 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Heartland's LOVE LETTERS Opens Tonight

Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III have known each other and corresponded with each other since they were children. Now, after a lifetime of birthday cards, postcards, short notes and heartfelt letters, we see Melissa and Andrew in front of us, recapturing their relationship simply by reading aloud. And that is the sum and substance of A. R. Gurney's Love Letters.

Gurney was very specific when he published his play. To perform Love Letters, Gurney wanted actors to sit at separate tables -- no staring into each other's eyes or running around or popping up and down -- and simply read their correspondence.

The list of actors who've performed Love Letters is amazing, from Gurney himself, opposite Holland Taylor in the original production, to Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones and Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal, on and off Broadway, big cities and small towns in North America, in London and Monte Carlo and Tokyo, and supposedly in a command performance in Judge Ito's courtroom for the jurors in the O. J. Simpson trial. The most recent Broadway production opened with Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow, with Carol Burnett taking over for Farrow and then Alan Alda and Candice Bergen stepping in. quoted Dennehy when they wrote about the play's history before that 2014 Broadway production: "[Love Letters] is an extraordinary piece," Dennehy told Today. "You cannot stage a play more simply than this, and yet it’s about everything in life. First love, loss of opportunities, loss of life, loss of love...It’s a beautiful play, and all you do is speak it."

Lori Adams and Jonathan Green rehearse Love Letters
Ron Emmons directs Love Letters for Heartland Theatre, with the Pay-What-You-Can preview performance scheduled for tonight. Emmons' production features three different casts for its three weekends of performance, with Lori Adams, Head of Acting at Illinois State University, opposite Jonathan Green, Illinois Wesleyan Provost and Dean of the Faculty, tonight through Sunday the 10th.

They'll be followed by Devon and Rhys Lovell April 14, 15, 16 and 17; and Cyndee and Dean Brown April 21, 22, 23 and 24.  Dr. Cyndee Brown is Head of Teacher Education at ISU. Rhys Lovell is Heartland Theatre's artistic director and Dean Brown is vice president of its board. All four of the Lovells and Browns have acted on Heartland's stage, with Rhys Lovell (Clybourne Park) and Cyndee Brown (Circle Mirror Transformation, Proof) both directing there, as well.

Evening performances begin at 7:30 pm, while Sunday matinees start at 2 pm. For more information on Love Letters at Heartland, click here. For show times and performance dates, click here. For reservation information, click here.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Love, Fame, Pride, Impossible Things... Coming This Month

The Humana Festival of New American Plays is ongoing at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and I will be there myself this weekend, eagerly awaiting new plays by Sarah Ruhl and Steven Dietz, among others, but meanwhile, back here in Illinois...

Suzan-Lori Park's contemporary Scarlet Letter, In the Blood, continues at U of I's Krannert Center for the Performing Arts this week. Look for In the Blood tonight through Sunday.

This Thursday, Heartland Theatre and director Ron Emmons open A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, a sweet, funny play about a lifelong friendship and lifelong love, with the distance and tenderness of shared letters as the way Gurney spins his story. Emmons directs three different casts over three weekends, with Lori Adams and Jonathan Green in the roles April 7, 8, 9 and 10; Devon and Rhys Lovell April 14, 15, 16 and 17; and Cyndee and Dean Brown April 21, 22, 23 and 24. For details on performance dates and times, click here. For ticket information, click here.

Fame: the Musical, is up next at Illinois Wesleyan University, with performances beginning April 12 and continuing through the 17th. Jean MacFarland Kerr is directing this updated take on the hit movie and TV show from the 80s, all about kids at a high school for the performing arts who hope to "light up the sky like a flame!" Except for the title song (with the bit of lyric I just quoted), the score and characters are new, developed and conceived by David De Silva. Kerr's cast of 20 is led by Evan Dolan, Conor Finnerty-Esmonde, Timothy Foszcz,  Holden Ginn, Emily Hardesty, Jenia Head, Jeffrey Keller, Chris Long, Haley Miller, Juna Shai, Steven Shur, Jessica Smith, LeeAnna Studt and Erica Werner.

The Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus version of Alice in Wonderland falls down the rabbit hole and takes a look at the other side of the looking glass in the Center for the Performing Arts at Illinois State University beginning April 15. Jessika Malone directs the mad, mad world of the White Rabbit (Sam Rosenfeld), Red Queen (Caitlin Graham), March Hare (RJ Secotte), Dormouse (Olivia Candocia) and, of course, Alice herself, (played for the ISU production by Shakeyla Thomas, seen above). There are individual posters and video pieces with the cast, who will be playing a whole array of characters, on the show's Facebook page. Alice in Wonderland opens April 15, followed by performances April 16 to 17 and 19 to 23. Click here for ticket info.

Over in Urbana, opening April 21, the Station Theatre offers The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, Scott Carter's meeting of the minds (or perhaps souls) of three very different thinkers trapped in an afterlife they can't escape. As Bob Verini said when he reviewed the play for Variety, "Carter couldn’t contrive a trio of distinguished historical personages more certain to piss each other off for all eternity." Lindsay Gates-Markel, who has played a whole lot of different roles on-stage at the Station, including Hamlet, directs Gary Ambler, David Barkley and Steven M. Keen as the three great men in question.

Also opening on the 21st is the Lyric Theatre @Illinois production of Kiss Me Kate in the Tryon Festival Theatre inside Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois. Cole Porter wrote the score, while Bella and Samuel Spewak wrote the book for this Taming of the Shrew set on Broadway, where leading man and leading lady Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, who used to be married, are battling just as much as Petruchio and Kate in the musical they're supposed to be putting on. Add in some gangsters, a whole lot of dancing, and some pretty infectious songs, and you have Kiss Me Kate. Try this page for all the info. And, by the way, if you're wondering what Lyric Theatre @Illinois connotes, you can read all about it here.

New Route Theatre presents its brand-new "Voices of Pride" festival of new plays by LGBTQ playwrights April 22 to 24 at the First Christian Church, 401 West Jefferson Street in Bloomington. The plays selected include Garbage Can Blues by Paula Ressler, ReConnect by DC Cathro, Thingification by Durial Harris, and Bedfellows by Daniel Kipp. Duane Boutté curated the selections, and he will direct these staged readings of Ressler's and Harris's plays, while New Route artistic director Don Shandrow is at the helm of Cathro's and Kipp's pieces. Each play will be presented twice; to see the complete schedule, check out New Route's Facebook page. Tickets are available at the door for a suggested donation of $10.