Wednesday, September 28, 2016

One of This Year's MacArthur "Geniuses" Is Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, whose plays are marked by their originality of expression, provocative ideas and upending of history, has been announced among the 23 fellows selected this year to receive the MacArthur Foundation's "Genius Grants." 

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Photo credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

In singling out Jacobs-Jenkins, the MacArthur Foundation noted:
"Many of Jacobs-Jenkins's plays use a historical lens to satirize and comment on modern culture, particularly the ways in which race and class are negotiated in both private and public settings. Although the provocation of his audience is purposeful, Jacobs-Jenkins's creation of unsettling, shocking, often confrontational moments is not gratuitous; these elements are of a piece with the world he has established on stage and in the service of the story he is telling."
 That goes to the heart of what is so special about his work, but what is so hard to express. In plays like Neighbors, Appropriate, An Octoroon and Gloria, he takes American culture and history -- including the history of theater -- and complicates it, tossing it in the air and remaking it before your very eyes. Oh, I see, you say to yourself. That's not what I thought going in. It looks different now... The theatricality of his expression reshapes your imagination. And isn't that what theater is for?

If Neighbors and its "minstrel show next door" is outrageous and shocking, Appropriate is more subtle in the way it puts our country's dark racial history front and center, An Octoroon is both funny and clever as it reworks an old piece of Americana, and Gloria moves to the work place to look at a different kind of dysfunctional family. They're each different, probing and insightful.

And they make Branden Jacobs-Jenkins a perfect "genius" to celebrate.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

ISU's Fall Season Begins Friday September 30th with WAIORA by Hone Kouka

The name Hone Kouka may be unfamiliar to American audiences, but his success as a playwright, actor, director and screenwriter has brought him a great deal of attention in his native New Zealand.

Kouka won an Order of Merit "for services to contemporary Māori theatre" in 2009, and his play, Waiora, which was commissioned for the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in 1996, has been performed widely there, as well as internationally. Its central messages of family, displacement and a search for something that feels like home have struck a chord around the world.

When Waiora was brought back to the Court Theatre in Christchurch, New Zealand, this year, reviewer Charlie Gates said, "Waiora may be a play about the very specific struggles of a Māori family moving to the South Island, but it is so finely observed that it speaks to universal human feelings of belonging, yearning, crushed dreams and the importance of being true to your own heritage."

Waiora comes to Illinois State University this weekend, in a production directed by Kim Pereira, with a cast led by Thomas Russell as Hone, the father of the Māori family that moves from the North Island in New Zealand to a more urban life in the South. Brandi Jones plays mother Wai, Emilia Dvorak is older daughter Amiria, who embraces the city and its possibilities, Hannah Spohnholtz is younger daughter Rongo, the one in the family having the hardest time giving up on what they left behind, and Alex Levy takes on the role of Boyboy, the youngest child, who is like his father in many ways, but doesn't have an easy time following his lead.

On the South Island, Hone and his family are confronted by two "Paheka," which means they are not Māori, but white people of European descent. For ISU, Mac Byrd plays Steve, the owner of the local mill, who thinks Hone should dance to his tune if he wants to make it, and Emma Harmon plays schoolteacher Louise, who considers herself an outsider like her new pupils.

William Brown, Anastasia Ferguson, Anthony Harden, Cayla Jones and Chloe Szot form the Tīpuna, a group that is akin to ancestors or voices from the past, calling Rongo back to the old ways. (And that's Ferguson you see on the ISU Waiora poster above._

Waiora is certainly not a play you will have other opportunities to see locally, but its "fish out of water" characters, each reacting to change in a different way, should speak to anyone who has moved from a small town to a big one, migrated from one country and one culture to another, or struggled with assimilation as a way to move up society's ladder. 

For more of a context for the play, I recommend this ten-minute video piece, which includes interviews with playwright as well as the director and several cast members from the first production of the play at the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in 1996.

Waiora opens at 7:30 pm on September 30 at Illinois State University's Center for the Performing Arts, with performances continuing through October 9. Tickets range from $12 to $17 and they are available in person at the CPA Box Office, which is open from 11 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday, or by phone at 309-438-2535. If you prefer to do your ticket-buying through Ticketmaster, that's a choice, too.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Conklin Players Bring FOREVER PLAID to Five Points Washington Sept 30 to Oct 2

You may remember the intrepid troupe who put on shows at the Barn II Dinner Theatre in Goodfield. Mary Simon and her Conklin Players were forced to give up their friendly barn when storm damage made it unsafe for shows, but they've managed to keep the entertainment coming, moving their act to Five Points in Washington.

This time, Forever Plaid is on the bill, with performances September 30 and October 1 at 7 pm and October 2 at 2 pm, directed and choreographed by Simon herself. Simon has said that Forever Plaid, a musical revue involving a guy group from about 60 years ago that never quite hit the big-time, is her favorite show ever from the Barn. If you know who The Four Aces, The Four Freshmen or The Four Lads were, you're in the right ballpark for the tuneful boys in plaid.

But before the Plaids had the chance to compete with the likes of the Lettermen and the Hi-Los (or even to get an album out), they were in a bus accident and dispatched to the afterlife. For the purposes of Forever Plaid, the story is that they're returning to the mortal world to sing a little four-part harmony on hits you may recognize -- "Three Coins in a Fountain," "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing," and, of course, "Moments to Remember" -- as they get one last shot at the brass ring. Or at "Heart and Soul," anyway.

The Plaids will be played by the same actors who took the roles at the Barn 19 years ago. If you saw it then, you already know you'll be seeing Dan Challacombe as Frankie, Pat Gaik as Jinx, Chad Kirvan as Smudge and Dave Windsor as Sparky.

Forever Plaid is a lot of fun and its song list can't be beat, whether you're into "Sixteen Tons" or "The Anniversary Waltz." If you'd like to turn on the Plaid version of the Wayback Machine, you can reserve tickets here on the Five Points site.

Friday, September 23, 2016

TIME BANDITS On Screen Tomorrow to Mark Art House Theater Day

Art House Theater Day is a day set up to celebrate and "recognize the year-round contributions of film and filmmakers, patrons, projectionists, and staff, and the brick and mortar theaters that are passionately dedicated to providing access to the best cinematic experience." It's tomorrow, it's happening at 184 movie theaters across the country, and the two "art houses" closest to us will offer the movie Time Bandits as their celebratory film.

Time Bandits will be screened at the Normal Theater at 1 pm and at the Art Theater Co-op in Champaign at 7:30 pm.

I love Time Bandits, a clever and amusing gem from 1981 directed by Terry Gilliam from a script by Gilliam and Michael Palin. Gilliam was the lone member of the Monty Python troupe from the United States. You didn't see him on telly as an actor as much as the others, but his surreal, off-kilter bits of animation (like the big foot that squashes people in the credits) were there to represent him even when he wasn't showing up as Knight with Chicken or Man Banging on Wall. After Python, he directed seriously strange films like Time Bandits as well as Brazil, Twelve Monkeys and The Fisher King. Intelligence, creativity and an unusual, singular vision mark the Gilliam oeuvre.

Given the title, you might expect Time Bandits to be about people stealing time. Au contraire. Instead, it's about a cadre of six dwarves trying to use portals in time to steal treasure. The thieves have a mysterious map that shows the location of these openings in time; they're intent on using the map to gallivant through history and scoop up loot from the likes of Agamemnon (Sean Connery) and Robin Hood (John Cleese) while staying ahead of the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson) from whom they pinched the map. One of the holes is inside the bedroom of a young boy, who is pulled along on their mad dash through history, and... Mad dashing ensues.

The art direction is wonderful, the adventures are fun, the cast is excellent across the board, and Time Bandits is a one-of-a-kind movie. It is, in fact, a dandy film to use for Art House Theater Day.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Film Noir Goes to School: THE MALTESE FALCON Tonight at the Normal Theater

In addition to Tuesday Night Classics and Friday Night Late Shows, the Normal Theater is hosting a Film Noir series on six selected Wednesday nights, airing classic film noir goodies accompanied by post-show discussions led by William McBride, Associate Professor at Illinois State University.

This new series opens tonight with a quintessential piece of film noir. That would be The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart at his most sardonic and iconic in the role of private investigator Sam Spade. When a mysterious damsel in distress shows up in Spade's office to hire an investigator, he finds himself in murky waters, full of guns, goons, felons and femmes fatales.

Mary Astor is the bad girl in this one, weaving a web of desperation and deceit around everyone she touches. That's her looking languid in the orange dress on the poster above. Who is she? Is she looking for someone to track down the man who kidnapped her little sister? Does she even have a sister? What's her connection to creepy Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), "fat man" Casper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) or Spade's unlucky partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan)? And what does any of that have to do with a piece of art, a rare, jewel-encrusted bird that supposedly dates from the 16th century and the Knights of Malta?

The Maltese Falcon was written and directed by John Huston, who himself starred in a classic piece of film noir when he played the corrupt patriarch in Chinatown in 1973. Huston was a mere 35 when The Maltese Falcon came out in 1941. He'd been acting on Broadway and in films since the 20s and writing for the screen since 1930, but The Maltese Falcon was his first directing job. Over the course of his lengthy career, he was nominated ten times for Oscars, winning two in 1949 for writing and directing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and he directed both his father, Walter Huston, and his daughter, Anjelica Huston, to Oscar wins.

His script for The Maltese Falcon adapts a hard-boiled detective yarn by Dashiell Hammett, leaving intact most of its twisty story of crosses and doublecrosses, but losing some of the more salacious bits that couldn't clear the Production Code in 1941. There's still plenty of the cynicism and moody ambiguity that characterize film noir, however.

If you haven't seen The Maltese Falcon, you really need to get to the Normal Theater tonight before 7 pm. These Wednesday night special showings are free, with the added bonus of McBride's film noir discussion afterwards.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Something Old, Something New... Emmy Winners 2016

If there's one thing I've learned about the Emmy Awards after watching them for years and years and years, it's that voters from the Television Academy love to honor the same people year after year after year. I call it the John Larroquette Rule, since he won four Emmys in a row for his role on Night Court. Or maybe I should go with Larroquette/Hunt, since Helen Hunt did the same thing -- four in a row -- for Mad About You. Although they weren't consecutive, Candice Bergen won five Emmys for playing Murphy Brown on Murphy Brown, Rhea Perlman took home four statuettes for playing Carla on Cheers and Don Knotts earned four as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show back in the 60s.

For different roles and performances, Cloris Leachman owns eight Emmys, while Ed Asner has seven, including five for playing Lou Grant (three from his stint with Lou on Mary Tyler Moore and two from Lou Grant.) Yeah, there's no questions that the Emmys gravitate to certain stars.

This year's Emmys did the Larroquette/Hunt Rule one better: Julia Louis-Dreyfus picked up her fifth consecutive Oustanding Lead Actress in a Comedy award for her role as Selina Meyer, the VP in Veep on HBO. Louis-Dreyfus has another Lead Actress Emmy for The New Adventures of Old Christine and a Supporting Actress win for Seinfeld, putting her total at seven. She's gaining on you, Leachman! (Allison Janney and Mary Tyler Moore are also sitting at seven. MTM may come back and snag another one in a guest category and you know Janney will get another three or four before she's done. As will Louis-Dreyfus. It's just a question of who'll get past Leachman first, I suppose.)

Louis-Dreyfus's partner in the comedy lead acting categories was also a repeater, as Jeffrey Tambor picked up his second Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Emmy for playing transgender Maura Pfefferman on Transparent.

Veep was the winner as Outstanding Comedy for a second year, serving notice that Modern Family and its five straight awards were a thing of the past. In supporting categories, Louie Anderson won for playing Zach Galifianakis's mother on Baskets, and Kate McKinnon added to Saturday Night Live's total haul over the years, giving the show its 45th Emmy.

Tatiana Maslany
If the comedy lead actors were same old, same old, the drama leads were brand new, as Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) were both first-time (and much deserving) winners. They also hit my best-dressed list, but more on that later.

One of their supporting pals was a repeat, though, as Maggie Smith took home another award (and didn't show up to accept it one more time) for Downton Abbey. The Outstanding Supporting Actor winner -- Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn for Bloodline -- was a first-time winner, but like Smith, he was not in attendance to accept his trophy.

When it came to shows, Game of Thrones and its Best Drama Emmy (the final award of the night) set a record, too, putting it at 38 overall Emmys and unseating Frasier, which earned a mere 37 in its time, as the series with the most wins ever. In addition to repeating as Outstanding Drama Series, Game of Thrones earned Emmys for director Miguel Sapochnik for the "Battle of the Bastards" episode, as well as for its casting, costumes, editing, makeup, production design, sound mixing, special visual effects, stunt coordination and writing. (Of the four different awards for makeup, Games of Thrones won two, giving them a total of 12 Emmys this year.)

The other big winner was The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which won nine awards. The program took honors as Outstanding Limited Series as well as gathering awards for lead actress Sarah Paulson (who played prosecutor Marcia Clark), lead actor Courtney B. Vance (defense attorney Johnnie Cochrane), supporting actor Sterling K. Brown (prosecutor Christopher Darden) and writer D. V. DeVincentis, along with wins for its casting, editing, hairstyling and sound mixing.

Rami Malek
As I said above, I picked Rami Malek (right) and Tatiana Maslany (above) as two of my fashion favorites even before their names were announced as winners. Maslany wore one of two sensational red gowns that stood out, along with Priyanka Chopra (Quantico).

You can see the entire list of winners here at the Emmys official site. Here are some of the winners in major categories (including a few given out last weekend at the "Creative" ceremony):

Master of None
Modern Family
Silicon Valley
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

*Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
Amy Schumer, Inside Amy Schumer
Ellie Kemper, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Tracee Ellis Ross, black-ish
Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie
Laurie Metcalf, Getting On

Anthony Anderson, black-ish
Aziz Ansari, Master of None
Will Forte, Last Man on Earth
William H. Macy, Shameless
Thomas Middleditch, Silicon Valley
*Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent 

Anna Chlumsky, Veep
Gaby Hoffmann, Transparent
Allison Janney, Mom
Judith Light, Transparent
*Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live
Niecy Nash, Getting On

*Louie Anderson, Baskets
Andre Braugher, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Ty Burrell, Modern Family
Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Tony Hale, Veep
Keegan-Michael Key, Key & Peele
Matt Walsh, Veep

Christine Baranski, The Big Bang Theory
*Tina Fey & Amy Poehler, Saturday Night Live
Melora Hardin, Transparent
Melissa McCarthy, Saturday Night Live
Laurie Metcalf, The Big Bang Theory
Amy Schumer, Saturday Night Live

Larry David, Saturday Night Live

Tracy Morgan, Saturday Night Live
Martin Mull, Veep
Bob Newhart, The Big Bang Theory
*Peter Scolari, Girls
Bradley Whitford, Transparent  

The Americans
Better Call Saul
Downton Abbey
*Game of Thrones
House of Cards
Mr. Robot

Kyle Chandler, Bloodline
*Rami Malek, Mr. Robot
Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul
Matthew Rhys, The Americans
Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards

Claire Danes, Homeland
Viola Davis, How to Get Away With Murder
Taraji P. Henson, Empire
*Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black
Keri Russell, The Americans
Robin Wright, House of Cards 

Jonathan Banks, Better Call Saul
Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
Kit Harington, Game of Thrones
Michael Kelly, House of Cards
*Ben Mendelsohn, Bloodline
Jon Voight, Ray Donovan

Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones
Lena Headey, Game of Thrones
*Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey
Maura Tierney, The Affair
Maisie Williams, Game of Thrones
Constance Zimmer, UnREAL

Mahershala Ali, House Of Cards
*Hank Azaria, Ray Donovan
Reg E. Cathey, House Of Cards
Michael J. Fox, The Good Wife
Paul Sparks, House Of Cards
Max von Sydow, Game Of Thrones

Ellen Burstyn, House Of Cards
Allison Janney, Masters Of Sex
*Margo Martindale, The Americans
Laurie Metcalf, Horace And Pete
Molly Parker, House Of Cards
Carrie Preston, The Good Wife

All the Way
A Very Murray Christmas
*Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

American Crime
The Night Manager
*The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Kirsten Dunst, Fargo
Felicity Huffman, American Crime
Audra McDonald, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill
*Sarah Paulson, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Lili Taylor, American Crime
Kerry Washington, Confirmation

Bryan Cranston, All The Way
Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride
Idris Elba, Luther
Cuba Gooding, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Tom Hiddleston, The Night Manager
*Courtney B. Vance, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Kathy Bates, American Horror Story: Hotel
Olivia Colman, The Night Manager
*Regina King, American Crime
Melissa Leo, All The Way
Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story: Hotel
Jean Smart, Fargo 

*Sterling K. Brown, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story 
Hugh Laurie, The Night Manager 
Jesse Plemons, Fargo
David Schwimmer, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
John Travolta, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Bokeem Woodbine, Fargo

Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee
Jimmy Kimmel Live
*Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
The Late Late Show With James Corden
Real Time With Bill Maher
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Documentary Now!
Drunk History
Inside Amy Schumer
*Key & Peele
Saturday Night Live

Adele Live In New York City
Amy Schumer: Live At The Apollo
The Kennedy Center Honors
*The Late Late Show Carpool Karaoke Prime Time Special

The Amazing Race
American Ninja Warrior
Dancing With The Stars
Project Runway
Top Chef
*The Voice

Tom Bergeron, Dancing With The Stars
Steve Harvey, Little Big Shots Starring Steve Harvey
Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, Project Runway
Jane Lynch, Hollywood Game Night
*RuPaul Charles, RuPaul's Drag Race
Ryan Seacrest, American Idol

Chris Addison, Veep
Aziz Ansari, Master Of None
Alec Berg, Silicon Valley
Mike Judge, Silicon Valley
Dave Mandel, Veep
*Jill Soloway, Transparent
Dale Stern, Veep

Jack Bender, Game Of Thrones 
Michael Engler, Downton Abbey
Lesli Linka Glatter, Homeland 
David Hollander, Ray Donovan
*Miguel Sapochnik, Game Of Thrones
Steven Soderbergh, The Knick 

*Susanne Bier, The Night Manager
Noah Hawley, Fargo
Anthony Hemingway, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Ryan Murphy, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story 
Jay Roach, All The Way
John Singleton, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Dave Diomedi, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
Don Roy King, Saturday Night Live
Tim Mancinelli, The Late Late Show With James Corden
*Ryan McFaul, Inside Amy Schumer
Paul Pennolino, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

*Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, Master Of None
Alec Berg, Silicon Valley
Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, Catastrophe

Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck, VeepDan O'Keefe, Silicon Valley
David Mandel, Veep

*David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Game Of Thrones
Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot
Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey
Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, The Americans
Michelle and Robert King, The Good Wife
Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, UnREAL

Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Joe Robert Cole, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Bob DeLaurentis, Fargo
*D.V. DeVincentis, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
David Farr, The Night Manager
Noah Hawley, Fargo

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee
Inside Amy Schumer
Key & Peele
*Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
Saturday Night Live

Amy Schumer: Live At The Apollo
John Mulaney: The Comeback Kid
*Patton Oswalt: Talking For Clapping
Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted
Triumph's Election Special 2016

And that's all till next year, when there will be no Maggie Smith for Downton Abbey and no People v. O.J. There's no end in sight for Veep or Game of Thrones, however.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Illinois Theatre Offers Reading of Tarell Alvin McCraney's WIG OUT! Tonight

Tonight is the first in a series of new play readings from Illinois Theatre, the producing arm of the department of theater at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. This project, called Going Broader and Deeper: New Play Reading, focuses on one play each semester, and is offered free of charge. No tickets necessary, in other words.

The play reading will take place at 7:30 pm in the Studio Theatre, the small black-box space in the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Actors will read from scripts, but you can expect no costumes, props or staged movement. After the reading, audience members are invited to stay in the theater for a discussion.

Interestingly, the material chosen for this New Play Reading is not what I would call new. Tarell Alvin McCraney's Wig Out! — a play New York Times critic Ben Brantley called a "gutsy, pulsing portrait of uptown drag queens and the men who love them" — was one of seven pieces chosen for development at the Sundance Theatre Institute in 2007, with subsequent productions at New York's Vineyard Theater and at the Royal Court in London in 2008.

The image you see above is the poster from the Vineyard Theater production, while the one below is the cover of the printed script. They both give a good indication of the play's subject matter, which involves a dysfunctional family of drag Cinderellas who live together at the House of Light and what happens when they walk off against House Di'Abolique at a midnight drag ball.

Even with a major New York production, Wig Off! is not all that well-known, not even within McCraney's own body of work, which earned him a MacArthur "genius grant" in 2013. His plays include the celebrated triptych of Brother/Sister plays and Head of Passes, which premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2013. McCraney and frequent director Tina Landau are both members of the Steppenwolf ensemble.

New or not, Wig Out! works with the rest of Illinois Theatre's New Play Reading mission, which states:
In order to hear the voices of new playwrights — and in particular, writers from underrepresented populations — Illinois Theatre will present readings of new plays once each semester. An informal setting will allow audiences to experience this work and engage in discussion about the content.
It may be that McCraney has updated or changed Wig Out! since those initial productions back in 2008, that it seems especially timely right now, or that its issues fit so perfectly into Illinois Theatre's 2016 season of "identity, family, history and the stories people tell to make sense of their lives" that they simply couldn't resist giving it a reading.

Look for the Illinois Theatre reading of Wig Out! at 7:30 pm in the Studio Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Admission is free.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Joys of LOU GRANT, Seasons 1 and 2, Now on DVD

I've said before that Lou Grant, the TV series starring Edward Asner a gruff city editor at a big-city newspaper, is one of my all-time favorite shows. Other series of that vintage (1977 to 1982) have been available as DVDs for absolute ever, but it's just now that we're getting the first few seasons of Lou. My friend Jon Alan Conrad and I have talked about Lou and our love for it many times over the years. To celebrate the arrival of the DVDs of seasons 1 and 2, Jon has written this piece about the phenomenon that was Lou Grant. Thanks, Jon!

Edward Asner as Lou Grant
It's an unpredictable phenomenon, which TV series become immortal and which don't. When broadcast historians recall the period surrounding 1980 (leaving aside possible objects of personal affection like The Rockford Files or Little House on the Prairie), they're likely to sum up the main developments in hour-long drama at that time as the heyday of the prime-time soap (Dallas, followed by Knots Landing, Dynasty and Falcon Crest), and then in 1981 the new wave of more complex serialized dramas (Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, L.A. Law) that set the style for hour-long drama since.

But somewhere in there starting in 1977, we had Lou Grant for five years, old-style stand-alone episodes with new-style complexity of character. Nobody seems to talk about it now, and that’s not right. If it gets mentioned at all, it’s as an improbable drama spinoff from a sitcom (the just-concluded Mary Tyler Moore Show), with Edward Asner winning Emmys for playing Lou Grant on two different series in different formats. And absolutely, hurray for Ed Asner. It's a delight to see him modulate from the crazy world of WJM-TV in Minneapolis to a return to Lou's newspaper roots as city editor of the Los Angeles Tribune. But a great deal about the series was memorable, and it's thrilling that Shout! Factory is making it available, at long last, on DVD.

Season 1 appeared in May, and Season 2 was issued in August, with Season 3 to come in November. And I've been having the time of my life revisiting it. Lou Grant was blessed with creators of impeccable pedigree: James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, who gave us The Mary Tyler Moore Show, plus Gene Reynolds, co-creator of the series M*A*S*H. Of course, such names don’t guarantee the quality of the product (we can all think of times when promising elements certainly didn't pay off), but this time, it worked out brilliantly.

They imagined a rich premise, they engaged a superb batch of writers (Leon Tokatyan, Seth Freeman, Michele Gallery, Steve Kline, April Smith, David Lloyd, Bud Freeman, and Gary David Goldberg among the most frequent contributors) and directors (Alexander Singer, Roger Young, Burt Brinckerhoff, and co-creator Gene Reynolds at the top of the list). And most of all, one of the great ensemble casts: new hire Lou supervises talented young reporters Joe Rossi (Robert Walden) and Billie Newman (Linda Kelsey), has Art Donovan (Jack Bannon) as his assistant city editor, has photographer Dennis "Animal" Price (Daryl Anderson) on call, answers to managing editor Charlie Hume (Mason Adams), and often finds himself at odds with publisher Margaret Pynchon (Nancy Marchand). Around them buzz a mass of other Trib employees whom we get to know for brief moments as needed. And of course a city around them, both those involved in the stories the Trib reports and pure bystanders (especially as Lou learns to handle living in L.A.).

Season 1 takes a few episodes to find itself; many new series do, after all, and the challenge was all the more acute in this case, figuring out how broadly Asner should play Lou, how much he should dominate the stories, how news and personal lives should be balanced. There’s even an off-note in the casting that gets corrected four episodes in (Rebecca Balding as reporter Carla Mardigian, acting in a one-note cutie-pie mode, simply never is encountered again once Billie Newman shows up). But once it hits its stride — one delight after another.

I should immediately qualify that by saying that, although most capsule descriptions of Lou Grant single out its tackling of contemporary issues for praise, I often found this aspect less compelling than its subtle handling of personal drama, and on re-viewing I not only still feel that way but find that issue-handling has become the most dated element of the show. Decades of grittier, more searching dramas have made us much more familiar with urban gang warfare (tackled in the episode "Barrio"), spousal abuse ("Housewarming"), teen pregnancy ("Romance"), urban homelessness ("Skids"). And we have also become accustomed to more nuanced dramatization of such stories than the earnest explanations and (inevitably) introductory levels of insight we get here.

But even such episodes can surprise with an unexpectedly sophisticated outlook. And much of the time, the show finds an individual way into a story — particularly when one of the Trib staff gets personally involved, as they increasingly do. Sometimes the central mystery of an episode remains unresolved, as the reporters file their stories as best they can and move on to others. In the end, more than anything else it's the high quality of the acting and writing that makes this series so memorable. Mr. Asner himself has already been mentioned; fans of the show will also have vivid memories of Robert Walden's abrasive Rossi, Linda Kelsey's increasingly confident Billie, Mason Adams's mingling of risk-averse dithering with no-nonsense authority, Jack Bannon's snappy wit, and perhaps most of all Nancy Marchand's gradual development of Margaret Pynchon (with writing/direction support, of course) from a fluffy socialite dilettante into a memorably rounded and strong depiction of a newspaper publisher.

Another pleasure is the parade of not-yet-famous faces (or sometimes once-famous ones) turning up in guest roles: Peter Weller as a neo-Nazi with a surprise in his past ("Nazis"); Barnard Hughes in an Emmy-winning appearance as a cantankerous judge ("Judge"); future TV and film director Thomas Carter as a copy boy ("Physical"); Dee Wallace as a sex worker ("Hooker"); pre-Cheers Nicholas Colasanto as an underworld figure ("Mob"); Geraldine Fitzgerald as Donovan’s mother ("Dying"); Jack Gilford as a superfluous retiree (“Home”); Michael Warren as an intern with his eye on transitioning into television work ("Marathon"); Andrew Duggan as a once-prosperous doctor who’s now a self-described bum ("Skids"). (You’ve no doubt noticed the one-word episode titles used throughout the series, emulating the "slugs" that reporters use to tag in-production articles.)

Other memorable Season 1 episodes not yet mentioned include "Henhouse," in which Billie is introduced as a writer for the arts-and-leisure section whose work so impresses Lou that he invites her into the city room (where she stays for the remainder of the five seasons); "Aftershock," in which Lou is shaken by his first experience of an L.A. earthquake (Charlie, unimpressed, smirks "We all have to lose it sometime, Lou"); "Scoop," a more comedic outing focused on the battle for exclusive coverage, with Reni Santoni as a rival reporter made to believe that Billie and Rossi are secretly dating; "Hero," in which Billie and Art become close, then break up (but an alert viewer will notice extra unspoken warmth between them thereafter); "Renewal," with Robert Earl Jones as a man whose apartment, whose walls he has filled with painted memories from his life, faces demolition; and "Poison," which takes Rossi out of town to deal with longtime friends, now engaged, one of them in danger.

In Season 2, some standouts are "Murder," about the constant bias as to whose stories get front-page placement; "Babies," with our two reporters pretending to be a married couple anxious to adopt; "Conflict," about the challenges of journalism when one has a personal interest in the subject (and a classic Mrs.-Pynchon-ism: "Rock or hard place, Mr. Hume; which am I?"); and "Hit," with a memorable appearance by the great Allyn Ann McLerie as a woman whose son was the victim of a hit-and-run killing years before.

Ahead lies Season 3, with such gems as "Witness," in which Billie gets police protection but can’t stand her assigned cop; "Andrew," a two-parter about Art’s mentally disturbed cousin (Art did seem to get all the family troubles, didn’t he?); "Blackout," with the Trib trying to get an issue out despite a power outage; "Brushfire" (just what it sounds like); and especially "Hollywood," one of the all-time great hours of TV — a noirish look into the past, with suitably bluesy music, a cast of old-timers, and hard-boiled narration by Lou.

And after that, let’s hope, Seasons 4 and 5, if we all do our part and buy these DVD sets now!

— Jon Alan Conrad

You'll find Seasons 1 and 2 on sale at Shout! Factory as well as Amazon and Barnes and Noble, with Season 3 available for pre-order.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Winners at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards

Last weekend, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences gave out a big chunk of their Primetime Emmy Awards, in what they call the "Creative Arts" categories. The official definition for the Creative Arts ceremony is that it honors "outstanding artistic and technical achievement in a variety of television program genres, guest performances in weekly series, as well as exceptional work in the animation, reality and documentary categories."

More than 80 Emmys were handed out on Saturday and Sunday, in categories ranging from animation to casting, cinematography, costumes, editing, hairstyling, music, sound, special effects, stunt coordination and writing.

What's left for the big, star-studded ceremony coming up next Sunday? About twenty awards, the ones the Academy has deemed the Big Kahunas, I guess. Although it's hard to see why the award for Writing for a Variety Special, which will be awarded next week, is any bigger or cooler than Writing for a Variety Series, which was done yesterday. Or how there's any difference in the "artistic and technical achievement" they are to be celebrated for. But there you have it. The Academy can't honor a hundred folks in one evening, so they've gone for three.

Here are some of the highlights of the Creative Arts winners (with "highlights" as defined by me):

Archer "The Figgis Agency" (FX)

Kathryn Burns, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW), for "I'm So Good at Yoga," "A Boy Band Made Up of Four Joshes" and "Settle For Me"

Making a Murderer (Netflix)

Peter Scolari, Girls (HBO)

Hank Azaria, Ray Donovan (Showtime)

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Saturday Night Live (NBC)

Margo Martindale, The Americans (FX)

RuPaul Charles, RuPaul's Drag Race (Logo)

Shark Tank (ABC)

The Late Late Show Carpool Karaoke Prime Time Special (CBS)

Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, Making a Murderer "Eighteen Years Lost" (Netflix)

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

Note that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were nominated as one entity in the Guest Actress category for hosting Saturday Night Live, and they won as one entity, too. That makes Emmy history.

And Peter Scolari wasn't among the nominees for Guest Actor in a Comedy Series when nominations were first announced. Peter MacNicol was there for his role on Veep, but it was subsequently determined that he was ineligible since he appeared in more than 50% of the episodes in Veep's season. The episode put him over the 50% limit aired after he was nominated, so his nominee status was revoked ex post facto. The Academy went back to the nomination ballots and gave Peter Scolari the slot instead. And he won.

Making a Murderer, the Netflix documentary about a criminal case in Wisconsin that seemed rife with injustice, was a big winner, taking home four Emmys in the six categories in which it was nominated. It won for overall Outstanding Documentary and its writing, as you see above, as well as Outstanding Directing and Picture Editing.

Last weekend's festivities will be broadcast in an edited version on the FXX network on Saturday, September 17 at 8 pm Eastern/7 pm Central time and again at 10:30 pm Eastern/9:30 Central. The splashier ceremony will air live at 7 pm Eastern/6 pm Central on Sunday, September 18, on ABC.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Heartland News X 3

In addition to opening the first show of their fall season tonight and launching the new ten-minute play contest this week, Heartland Theatre has also announced auditions next week for their November show. Here's the lowdown on all three Heartland happenings:

Fighting Words by Sunil Kuruvilla, directed by Don Shandrow, opens tonight with a Pay What You Can preview. After tonight, tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for seniors over 65, and $5 for students, with performances through September 24. Groups of ten or more qualify for special discounts. Kuruvilla is a Canadian playwright who has a master's degree in playwriting from Yale School of Drama. This particular play involves three women in a small mining town in Wales, waiting to watch their hometown hero in a boxing match taking place halfway across the world in Los Angeles. Shandrow's cast for Fighting Words is Jessie Swiech, Lizzy Selzer and Nancy Nickerson. If you're interested in seeing the show, you'll find show times here and reservation information here.

Heartland has revealed the new theme for their annual ten-minute play competition. It's "The Graduation Party." They're asking for plays "that explore the fleeting moments when people realize they’re finishing a journey together." If your "Graduation Party" play earns highest honors and wins a spot in next year's festival, performances will take place June 8 to July 1, 2017. For more information on what they're looking for in terms of plays, try this link. Rules and guidelines are here.

Auditions for the next play on Heartland's schedule, Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, will be held at the theater on Sunday, September 11, from 3 to 5:30 pm, and Monday, September 12, from 7 to 9:30 pm. Sandra Zielinski is directing The Homecoming, which features Pinter's trademark brand of menace and unpleasantness, as a professor with working class origins comes back into contact with his family, a loutish bunch of men. He brings his wife with him to this Homecoming, creating tension and conflict as the men posture for her attention. A bit of trivia: Like Fighting Words, The Homecoming has a would-be boxer among its characters. Zielinski will be looking for five men ranging in age from mid-twenties to 70s, and one woman in her 30s. Click here for all the audition info. Performances are scheduled for November 3 to 19, 2016.

To sum up, Fighting Words opens tonight and runs through the 24th; ten-minute plays on the theme "The Graduation Party" are now being accepted in a contest for possible production next year; and auditions for The Homecoming will take place this coming Sunday and Monday.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Sliding Softly Into September ...

Yes, I know, it's already Labor Day Weekend and you're all headed outside for the last barbecue, the last camp-out, the last lounge by the pool during the Summer of 16. But September is officially the kick-off for a whole lot of theater seasons, which means there is a lot of good stuff starting right now. Good inside stuff. Without a need for bug spray. I'll try to hit all the TV premieres a little later, but for now... Cue intro music... It's theater time!

If you prefer to dip into Fall in a comedic frame of mind, you'll want to try Boeing Boeing, which opened last night at Community Players. It's a fast, fizzy farce about a womanizer in Paris in the 60s and the trouble he gets into when his three flight attendant fiancées all descend at once. This "non-stop comedy" is directed by G. William Zorn, with Dave Krostal as the free-wheeling bachelor whose love life includes hot-and-cold running stewardesses of different nationalities. Community Players' preview of their production is available here.

Heartland Theatre launches its fall season next week with Sunil Kuruvilla's Fighting Words, about three women in a small town in Wales in 1980 who are left at home while their hometown hero, a bantamweight boxer, fights for a world championship in Los Angeles. Don Shandrow directs Jessie Swiech and Lizzy Selzer as sisters Peg and Nia, women with very different but equally powerful aspirations, and Nancy Nickerson as their landlady, a woman who thinks she has made her peace with her own life and limited choices. Fighting Words opens with a "Pay What You Can" preview on September 8, followed by regularly ticketed performances through the 24th. More info about the production is available here, with show dates and times here.

Krannert Center for the Performing Arts fuses music and the movies on September 15 and 16 in what they're calling "A Cine-Concert with Live Music" around The Triplets of Belleville, the Academy Award-nominated film from director/writer Sylvain Chomet. Composer Benoît Charest, who was nominated along with Chomet* in the Best Song category for "Belleville Rendez-Vous," will be on hand to conduct Le Terrible Orchestra de Belleville in a live performance of the film's score as the film is screened. For all the details, including un petit aperçu of the film itself, visit this page at the Krannert Center site.

There aren't a whole lot of details yet about who is included in the group of "the area's finest actors, dancers and musicians" who'll be helping the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts celebrate its 10th anniversary on September 16 at 7:30 pm. Whoever is included, A Toast to 10 promises "a glass of bubbly and a heartfelt look at a decade of performing arts." Click here for more information.

The singular theatrical experience known as Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play opens September 22 in the Meyer Jacobs Theatre at Bradley University in Peoria. In her play, Washburn fashions a dystopic future world where the people who've survived have no electricity, but they do have memories of a classic episode of The Simpsons to keep them warm, with echoes of pop culture taking on mythic and even religious significance over time. If you're interested in where theater is going in the new millennium or keeping track of rising playwrights, Mr. Burns should be a destination play. Washburn definitely made a splash with this strange, smart play. (Note that the image that accompanies this listing is from the ACT production in San Francisco in their 2014-15 season.)

The House of Blue Leaves, John Guare's 1971 Obie Award-winning play, takes the stage at Illinois Central College from September 23 to October 2. Guare's script is an absurd, crazy and off-kilter visit to Sunnyside, Queens, where a man named Artie has been trying to write a hit song forever. He has a wife named Bananas, a girlfriend named Bunny, and a whole lot of mishegas, as the Pope visits New York, nuns mistakenly visit Artie's apartment, and a bomb goes off in the midst of the mess. Yes, it's funny, but there's pain underneath all the weirdness.

Illinois State University's first play of the new season will be Waiora, by New Zealand playwright Hone Kouka, about a Māori family that moves from their small village to a larger city, upending their sense of family and home. Kim Pereira directs a cast that includes William Brown, Mac Byrd, Emilia Dvorak, Anastasia Ferguson, Anthony Harden, Emma Harmon, Brandi Jones, Alex Levy, Hannah Spohnholtz, Cayla Jones and Chloe Szot. Waiora opens in the ISU Center for the Performing Arts on September 30, with performances continuing October 1 to 9. For tickets, call the CPA Box Office at 309-438-2535 or visit them in person between 11 am and 5 pm Monday through Friday. (And the image accompanying this listing comes from a production of Waiora running right now at the Court Theatre in New Zealand.)

* The Triplets of Belleville was nominated as Best Animated Feature at the 2004 Oscars, while Benoît Charest (music) and Sylvain Chomet (lyrics) were nominated for Best Song for "Belleville Rendez-Vous."