Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Young at Heartland Takes the Spotlight June 23 and 28

It's always a hot ticket when the Young at Heartland troupe of senior actors perform. Every summer, they take the stage at Heartland Theatre for two showcases that highlight their acting and writing talents.

Young at Heartland's actors, all over 55, will perform at Heartland Theatre on Friday June 23 at 1 pm and Wednesday June 28 at 7:30 pm. There are no reservations and no set price; they simply ask for a donation at the door. And yes, it's a popular event, so you are warned to get there early -- at least 20 minutes before curtain, when the doors open -- if you want a good seat.

No word on what they'll be performing in this year's program, which represents the culmination of a two-month acting workshop led by veteran director Sandra Zielinski, but I can see what looks like chefs, clowns, firefighters, a matador, a bunch of Wizard of Oz characters, and a bevy of fans and fanatics in this year's photo. (Click on the image above to see a larger copy.) The scenes and short plays these actors perform were all written just for them by current and former YAH colleagues.

Young at Heartland was founded by Ann B. White and continues under her leadership, with two semesters of workshops and performances each year. Ann is the one holding her pom pom high (fourth from the left) in the photo above. She was recently named one of eight area "Women of Distinction" by the YWCA of McLean County for her stellar work with Young at Heartland.

For more information on Young at Heartland, click here. You can also see their entire schedule of area performances here.

Monday, June 19, 2017

IWU School of Theatre Arts Announces Mainstage Choices for 2017-18

Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Theatre Arts has announced via Facebook what will be on stage for the mainstage part of their 2017-18 season. No dates yet and the official IWU Theatre page is still showing last year's schedule, but at least we know what we'll seeing if not exactly when. I'm guessing checking back on that page periodically should yield a schedule at some point.

If the order of the photos indicated the order of the shows, first up will be Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel's wistful, haunting memory play set in County Donegal in Ireland in 1936.  The Lughnasa in Dancing at Lughnasa refers to the August harvest festival. The five Mundy sisters are struggling to get by, from the eldest, Kate, a tightly wound schoolteacher, to Christina, the youngest, who has a child but no husband or other means of support. Their lives only get more difficult when their older brother, who'd been a Catholic missionary and chaplain in Africa, returns for unspecified reasons, but has trouble mentally balancing the world he left behind and the one he's reentered. Christina's son Michael is the narrator of the play, standing in for Friel. He appears as an adult to step back into the action of his childhood. Dancing at Lughnasa was first produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, thereafter transferring to London, where it won the Olivier Award for Best Play in 1991. On Broadway, it also took the Tony for Best Play, along with awards for director Patrick Mason and Best Featured Actress in a Play for Brid Brennan, who played Agnes, the shy, tentative sister somewhat overshadowed in the middle of the family, in its Dublin, West End and Broadway productions.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1949 musical South Pacific comes next in the picture scroll. Everybody knows "Some Enchanted Evening," "Bali Hai" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," right? Based on James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, this South Pacific features music by Rodgers, lyrics by Hammerstein and book by Joshua Logan, telling the stories of Americans stationed on islands in the Pacific. There's Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, who faces her own prejudices when she falls in love with a French plantation owner named Emile de Becque who has mixed-race children; a squadron of rowdy Seabees led by Luther Bills; and Lieutenant Cable, a forthright young officer in the midst of dangerous missions and a love affair with a native woman. As a child, I remember thinking Nellie was an idiot for her bigotry against two kids who were half-Polynesian, but that's the point of South Pacific, that our prejudices are not innate or logically justifiable but "carefully taught." The original Broadway production won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and piled up ten Tony Awards, including winning Best Musical along with awards for its book, score, director, producer and scenic design, and sweeping the acting categories, with wins for leads Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, who played Nellie and Emile de Becque, and featured actors Myron McCormick, who played Billis, and Juanita Hall, who played Bloody Mary, the enterprising mother of Cable's beautiful love interest.

Next on the list in Eugene Ionesco's absurdist drama Rhinoceros, wherein the citizens of a French town inexplicably start turning into stampeding rhinoceroses. One by one, they sprout horns and hoofs, as a lone man, Berenger, tries to hold out against the onslaught. Rhinoceros was written in 1959 and is widely regarded as a cautionary tale about how mass movements like Fascism and Nazism can take over and turn people who were once reasonable human beings into fanatical monsters. In other words, it's perfect for our current international political landscape. Although actor/producer/director/mime Jean-Louis Barrault played Berenger in the original French production and Laurence Olivier took the role in London, it was Eli Wallach who made Berrenger (now with an extra R) his own on Broadway, with Zero Mostel as his intellectual friend John (originally Jean) who turned rhino in front of his eyes. In the showier role, Mostel was the one who won the Tony as Best Actor. In the 1973 film, Gene Wilder played a new version of Berenger called Stanley, with Mostel reprising his role.

In a real change of pace from the politically and personally provocative to just plain fun, the last show in IWU's mainstage season is the roller disco musical Xanadu, based on the 1980 film that starred Olivia Newton-John as a Greek muse. On Broadway, Kerry Butler took the Newton-John role, while Cheyenne Jackson played the man she's trying to inspire. Douglas Carter Beane spruced up the book from the film script, adding more mythology and a whole lot of parody to send up the campy movie. Along with the roller skates, songs from the movie like the title song and "All Over the World" came with it from screen to stage, with added hits like "Have You Never Been Mellow?" and ELO's "Strange Magic." Click here to see Jackson, Butler and the rest of the cast perform "Don't Walk Away" on the Tonys.

In case you're wondering, it was Kelli O'Hara who was nominated but did not win the Tony for the 2010 revival of South Pacific, whose poster image you see up top, while Kerry Butler -- the blonde in the poster just above -- was nominated but did not win for Xanadu in 2008.

Watch this space for more details on all these shows as dates are added. Check here for IWU's Laboratory Theatre schedule once that's added.

Monday, June 12, 2017

DEAR EVAN HANSEN Wins Big at Lackluster Tony Awards

After last year's Hamilton-a-palooza, I suppose any Tony Awards ceremony would've been a let-down. But this year... Yeah, it was really a let-down. Most of that stemmed from host Kevin Spacey, who seemed more interested in showcasing himself than the various winners and nominees. One more impression and I was going to throw something. Do the people who are in love with Dear Evan Hansen even know who Johnny Carson is?

Don't get me wrong. There were a couple of fun performances -- Bandstand and Natasha, Pierre et al. looked like fun and had a lot of energy -- and some more-than-worthy wins, like the marvelous Gavin Creel for the revival of Hello, Dolly! and Illinois' own Laurie Metcalf for A Doll's House Part 2. I was also happy to see Kevin Kline win his third Tony, with this one 36 years after his last. In case you're wondering, he last won as the lead actor in a musical for The Pirates of Penance back in 1981 and before that, as a featured actor in a musical for On the Twentieth Century in 1978. All he needs is featured actor in a play, and he will have the acting categories covered.

I also loved that the authors of nominated plays got the spotlight to introduce their own plays instead of dragging out some unrelated hockey player or Hollywood star. Playwrights Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel should've been on Broadway well before this, so let's applaud the fact that we got to see them on the Tony stage if only to introduce their plays. More of that, please!

On the downside, it's a travesty that James Earl Jones received his Special Tony for Lifetime Achievement during a commercial, along with sound designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, who received a special Tony for their work on The Encounter, the folks from Regional Tony winner Dallas Theater Center, and Isabelle Stevenson humanitarian award winner Baayork Lee. I'd rather see any and all of them ten times over than Kevin Spacey's impressions or the Rockettes.

Here are your nominees, with winners in bold and listed first:

Dear Evan Hansen
Come From Away
Groundhog Day
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Oslo by J.T. Rogers
A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath
Indecent by Paula Vogel
Sweat by Lynn Nottage

Hello, Dolly!
Miss Saigon 

Jitney by August Wilson  
The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman
Present Laughter by Noel Coward
Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare

Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen
Christian Borle, Falsettos
Josh Groban, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
David Hyde Pierce, Hello, Dolly! 
Andy Karl, Groundhog Day

Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly! 
Denée Benton, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 
Christine Ebersole, War Paint 
Patti LuPone, War Paint
Eva Noblezada, Miss Saigon 

Gavin Creel, Hello, Dolly!
Mike Faist, Dear Evan Hansen 
Andrew Rannells, Falsettos
Lucas Steele, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 
Brandon Uranowitz, Falsettos 

Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen 
Kate Baldwin, Hello, Dolly! 
Stephanie J. Block, Falsettos 
Jenn Colella, Come From Away 
Mary Beth Peil, Anastasia

Kevin Kline, Present Laughter 
Denis Arndt, Heisenberg
Chris Cooper, A Doll’s House, Part 2 
Corey Hawkins, Six Degrees of Separation
Jefferson Mays, Oslo

Laurie Metcalf, A Doll’s House, Part 2 
Cate Blanchett, The Present
Jennifer Ehle, Oslo
Sally Field, The Glass Menagerie
Laura Linney, The Little Foxes

Michael Aronov, Oslo 
Danny DeVito, The Price 
Nathan Lane, The Front Page
Richard Thomas, The Little Foxes
John Douglas Thompson, Jitney 

Cynthia Nixon, The Little Foxes 
Johanna Day, Sweat 
Jayne Houdyshell, A Doll's House, Part 2
Condola Rashad, A Doll's House, Part 2
Michelle Wilson, Sweat

Christopher Ashley, Come From Away 
Rachel Chavkin, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 
Michael Greif, Dear Evan Hansen 
Matthew Warchus, Groundhog Day 
Jerry Zaks, Hello, Dolly! 

Rebecca Taichman, Indecent 
Sam Gold, A Doll's House, Part 2 
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jitney
Bartlett Sher, Oslo
Daniel Sullivan, The Little Foxes

Santo Loquasto, Hello, Dolly! 
Linda Cho, Anastasia
Paloma Young, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Catherine Zuber, War Paint 

Jane Greenwood, The Little Foxes
Susan Hilferty, Present Laughter
Toni-Leslie James, Jitney
David Zinn, A Doll's House, Part 2

Mimi Lien, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Rob Howell, Groundhog Day
David Korins, War Paint
Santo Loquasto, Hello, Dolly!

Nigel Hook, The Play That Goes Wrong
David Gallo, Jitney
Douglas W. Schmidt, The Front Page
Michael Yeargan, Oslo

Bradley King, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Howell Binkley, Come From Away
Natasha Katz, Hello, Dolly!
Japhy Weideman, Dear Evan Hansen

Christopher Akerlind, Indecent
Jane Cox, Jitney
Donald Holder, Oslo
Jennifer Tipton, A Doll's House, Part 2

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hansen
David Hein and Irene Sankoff, Come From Away
Dave Malloy, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Tim Minchin, Groundhog Day 

Steven Levenson, Dear Evan Hansen  
David Hein and Irene Sankoff, Come From Away
Dave Malloy, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Danny Rubin, Groundhog Day 

Andy Blankenbuehler, Bandstand 
Peter Darling and Ellen Kane, Groundhog Day 
Kelly Devine, Come From Away
Denis Jones, Holiday Inn
Sam Pinkleton, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 

Alex Lacamoire, Dear Evan Hansen 
Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen, Bandstand 
Larry Hochman, Hello, Dolly!
Dave Malloy, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

And that's all she wrote for the Tony Awards of 2017. Let's hope that's also all she wrote for Kevin Spacey as a Tony host.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Encores' GOLDEN APPLE Is Delicious

From time to time, my friend Jon Alan Conrad is inspired to write a guest piece for this blog, which makes me very happy indeed. Jon is always insightful and immensely knowledgeable. Who wouldn't be delighted to offer a forum for his writing? 

Here's Jon's take on The Golden Apple, which he recently saw as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center.

We lovers of musical theater finally saw our long-standing wish granted in May 2017, when the series "Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert" marked the end of its 24th season with a production of The Golden Apple.

For an explanation of "Encores!" I'll save space by referring to my previous column about an earlier production of theirs, commenting in addition that their events long ago stopped being "concerts" in any sense beyond the orchestra's presence onstage. (Apparently their standard Playbill caveat, that the performers might carry their scripts, now contractually frees them from actually doing so.) As to "our wish," naturally I can't speak for everyone. But subscribers, watching the list of "Encores!" titles (here  -- or here, if you enjoy a quiz format) mount up over the seasons, have indulged in a fan's privilege and dreamed up lists of future possibilities. And although we've seen some gratifying rarities over the years -- St. Louis Woman, Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Paint Your Wagon are four that they also recorded -- many wish lists (Cynthia Nixon's, for one) kept The Golden Apple at the top.

The Golden Apple itself? It's a collaboration between lyricist John Latouche (remembered for his contributions to Cabin in the Sky and Candide) and composer Jerome Moross (probably best remembered for epic movie scores like The Big Country. There's no speaking, or even operatic talk-singing (recitative); it's all in song forms, ranging from that sweeping Americana sound heard in Moross's movie work to vaudeville, blues, soft-shoe, and ragtime.

And that's not all. In this compact two-hour opera-musical, Latouche and Moross retold the Iliad and Odyssey, setting it in Washington State (near our own Mt. Olympus) around 1900. At the start, the boys come home from the Spanish-American War to small-town contentment, until farmer's daughter Helen runs off with traveling salesman Mr. Paris in his hot-air balloon. The guys, having pledged to take care of her, troop off to the big city to bring her back. She returns with husband Menelaus readily enough at the start of Act II, but that leaves the men still far from home, susceptible to the perils of the Odyssey -- Calypso, Scylla-Charybdis, Sirens, Circe -- embodied as the temptations of the coming century -- status, wealth, sex, power -- until everyone has vanished except Ulysses, who comes to his senses and returns home to Penelope.

All this playful classicism was catnip to the critics when The Golden Apple opened at the Phoenix Theatre in March 1954 (one of the first off-Broadway musicals) as part of its repertory season. A transfer to Broadway to capitalize on its cult popularity with a longer run seemed a good idea, but after opening at the Alvin Theatre in April, it managed only 125 performances, leaving behind the published play and a highly truncated recording of highlights, mementos that fail to convey its stature and expansive musicality. But surviving photos and accounts suggest a jewel of an original production, elegantly designed and directed, and cast with great care. The folksy tunefulness in Act I creates a lovely picture of small-town life, blossoming into expansive moments like Ulysses and Penelope's duet of marital contentment, "It's the Going Home Together," or Helen's sultry seduction of Paris (and a favorite of song stylists ever since), "Lazy Afternoon." Then in the new big-city atmosphere of Act II, vaudeville specialties (starring the folks from Act I in new guises) pop out, like the slick vaudevillian "Scylla and Charybdis" routine promoting the stock market, and the hula-flavored enticements of "Goona Goona Lagoon." An interlude with the waiting Penelope gives us the soaring aria "Windflowers," and the final unsure reunion the impassioned duet "We've Just Begun." By the end, we've had a colorful experience that retold a classic tale in a witty way, and we've also learned something about ourselves. What more could you ask for?

Somehow, while other ambitious shows from the 1950s remain well-remembered, and while regional opera companies search for popular-flavored classics to fill out their seasons, nobody seems to know about, or want to produce, The Golden Apple. Even the recent release, at long last, of a full-length recording, welcome as it is, hasn't seemed to change this situation much.

So the Encores! production meant more than just the chance to see an insider's seldom-seen title: it showed the world what a fine piece of writing it is, and maybe it can persuade managements to stage more productions of it, and let its take its rightful place among the masterpieces of popular musical theater.

Presentations like the one I saw on May 13 (partway through a run of seven performances) will go a long way toward raising awareness of it, and promoting a wider fondness for it. It was certainly given the full treatment, with the biggest chorus the series has employed, multiple costumes for everyone, some evocative if skeletal sets, and no cuts whatever. Michael Berresse, having brightened several past entries as a performer, directed with fine attention to both character and theatrical effect (aided by choreographer Joshua Bergasse), and the Encores! Orchestra sounded its customary best under Rob Berman's reliable baton, doing justice to Moross's own orchestrations (assisted by Hershy Kay), among the most gorgeous written for the theater.

Some Encores! productions have provided all-star casts to enjoyable effect (like their No, No, Nanette with Rosie O'Donnell, Sandy Duncan, Beth Leavel, Charles Kimbrough, and Mr. Berresse), but The Golden Apple followed the other possible pattern, assembling an ensemble cast suitable for a real production. (And thereby eliciting a fleeting wish that they could just stay together and settle in for a long run.) There was not a single weak element anywhere, so instead of coming up with a varied series of commendations for every name in the cast, I'll link to a personnel list, a photo gallery , and two montages of in-performance videos to give the details and establish the general excellence. That will allow the mention of just a few outstanding participants without seeming to criticize the others. For instance, the sinister Hector Charybdis who appears in Act II as mayor and guide to temptation was suavely embodied by Jason Kravits, familiar as countless sleazy lawyers and judges on television but clearly an old hand with a top hat and a cane. The trio of local "goddesses" (Miss Minerva, Mrs. Juniper, and Lovey Mars) whose rivalry ignites the plot, and who transform into temptations in Act II, were delightfully embodied by Alli Mauzey, Ashley Brown, and Carrie Compere. Ryan Silverman supplied a mellow baritone and the right reckless confidence as Ulysses. Especially memorable were two actresses new to me: Lindsay Mendez (well known to fans of Wicked, but not previously to me), sultry and giddy as needed for Helen, and Mikaela Bennett (unknown to most of the audience, I dare say, as her Juilliard graduation was still a week in the future) bringing a richly soaring soprano to Penelope. Both ladies had the special spark that can make time stand still -- a most welcome illusion, because I didn't want the show to end, ever. Let's hope that everyone's local theater company becomes motivated to schedule a production next year.

Monday, May 29, 2017

SPEECH & DEBATE on Screen (on iTunes)

A film version of Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate is now available to rent through iTunes. Karam wrote the screenplay for the film based on his own play, which opened Off-Broadway in 2007 as part of the Roundabout Underground initiative.

Speech & Debate, the play, has been well-performed since then, including at Urbana's Station Theater in 2008 and at Illinois State University in 2011.

Speech & Debate involves three teenagers in Oregon, none of whom exactly fit in. Diwata is overflowing with the desire to PERFORM!, Howie is gay and looking for a way to express that at a hostile school and Solomon sees himself as a crusading journalist. Together, they revive their school's moribund debate club to expose the hypocrisy and perfidy of the adults around them. By turns, they're funny, wounded and outrageous, especially when they perform a musical with a witch from The Crucible time-traveling to meet a gay, teenage version of Abraham Lincoln.

Sarah Steele, an actress you may recognize from her role as Marissa Gold on The Good Wife, played Diwata in that Roundabout production ten years ago, and she is back as Diwata for the movie. She's joined by Liam James (The Family) as Solomon and Austin P. McKenzie (he played Melchior in the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening on Broadway) as Howie.

Karam and director Dan Harris have opened up the stage play, which showed only the three high school students and one adult, at least far enough to include space for actors like Skylar Astin, Roger Bart, Janeane Garolfolo, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Kal Penn, Gideon Glick (who played Howie in the original production), and Lin-Manuel Miranda as part of the tableau.

All that, for $3.99 on iTunes.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Coming Soon: 2017 Illinois Shakespeare Festival Opportunities & Options

If it's almost summer, it's almost time for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. If you haven't purchased tickets yet, there's still time to choose single seats or a season pass. And a call just went out for volunteer ushers, which may also get you in to see the show.

Here's the scoop on what's happening this summer:

A Midsummer Night's Dream is up first with a preview performance on June 28 and official opening night on the 30th. After that, you'll find 16 more performances in the theater at Ewing Manor through August 11. This Midsummer is directed by Robert Quinlan, head of the MFA directing program at Illinois State University. Quinlan's previous Illinois Shakespeare Festival credits include Richard II and Macbeth. Festival favorite Tom Quinn leads the cast as Bottom, with Jordan Coughtry as Puck, Thom Miller as Oberon, Nisi Sturgis as Titania, and Jesse Bhamrah, Susie Parr, Raffeal A. Sears and Emily Wold as the four Athenian lovers lost in the forest.

Next on the agenda is not just any Cymbeline but an adaptation for six actors created by Chris Coleman called Shakespeare's Amazing Cymbeline. The ensemble consists of Coughtry, Miller, Quinn, Sears and Sturgis and Patrick Toon, under the direction of Andy Park, who also directed Peter and the Starcatcher and Failure: A Love Story in Festivals past. The preview for Amazing Cymbeline happens on June 29, with performances on stage at Ewing Theater from July 1 to August 12.

The Q Brothers return to the Festival with I Heart Juliet, "bringing their incredible energy, humor, and hip-hop verse to Shakespeare’s timeless masterpiece, Romeo & Juliet." You might've seen the Q Brothers' take on Two Gentleman of Verona called Q Gents back in 2015. This time, ISF Artistic Director Kevin Rich is at the helm with a cast that includes the Q Brothers Collective (GQ, JQ, Jax and Pos) and ten members of the Festival company. I Heart Juliet opens July 9 in Westhoff Theatre on the ISU campus, continuing at Westhoff till August 8. For all the details, click here.

If you're wondering who's who on the design team this year, look for Joe C. Klug as scenic designer for all three shows, with Dan Ozminkowski as lighting designer and Kieran Pereira in charge of sound design. Splitting up costume design duties, Nicholas Hartman will conceive the wardrobe for Amazing Cymbeline, Christina Leinicke for I Heart Juliet and Tyler Wilson for Midsummer.

In addition to these three shows, you'll have five chances to see The Improvised Shakespeare Company and Wednesday and Saturday morning performances of the fairytale Sleeping Beauty under the Theater for Young Audiences umbrella.

And about that volunteer usher opportunity... You can wear what you want, pick your dates (with some flexibility), and even see the show for free, as long as seats are available. Read more about it here. If ushering sounds like something you'd enjoy, contact ISF House Manager Dave Hansen at dlhans1@ilstu.edu.

Monday, May 22, 2017

What's Up from Prairie Fire the Rest of 2017

Prairie Fire Theatre's 2017 season is well underway, with their Champagne Gala last month and this month, the return of the children's opera project that tours area schools. After that, they'll finish up 2017 with a classic musical later in the summer and a revue about romantic hopes and mishaps in the fall.

This year's children's opera, once again written by Nancy Steele Brokaw, is The Last Book on Earth, and it involves three young friends intent on saving all the books in the world from a dark force called The Blank. There's a magic bookshop, storybook villains, hidden talismans and something called A Dangerous Book that our heroes must leap into to begin their mission. The Last Book on Earth has already performed two public performances at the Normal Public Library and the Unitarian Universalist Church, with the third scheduled for tonight at 6:30 pm at the Bloomington Public Library. For more information, click here.

In August, Prairie Fire returns with The Most Happy Fella, the 1956 Frank Loesser musical that "tells the heart-stopping story of unlikely love that blossoms in Napa Valley." Its original Broadway production was nominated for six Tony Awards, but it was the 2014 City Center Encores! production with Shuler Hensley, Laura Benanti and Cheyenne Jackson that impressed critics like the New York Times' Ben Brantley. You'll recognize the song "Standing on the Corner," the one where the guys are "watching all the girls go by," in Loesser's "sweeping, seamless and intricately layered score." Performances are scheduled from August 3 to 6 in Westbrook Auditorium inside Illinois Wesleyan University's Presser Hall.

And the last show of the Prairie Fire season will be Starting Here, Starting Now, a Maltby and Shire revue made up of story songs on the general subject of love and romance. In the first act, we hear about the challenges of finding love in the city, while the second turns to people who have stumbled in pursuit of romance but have hopes of new beginnings. It will be performed on October 20 and 21 in IWU's Young Lounge in the Memorial Center. (The image you see here is from the 1977 off-Broadway original cast recording. That production starred Loni Ackerman, Margery Cohen and George Lee Andrews.)

The Prairie Fire box office is available at 309-824-30476.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Portugal's Salvador Sobral Wins EUROVISION 2017

Another year of Eurovision, the international song contest that has been around since 1956, is now in the books.

Every year, an array of countries who fall within the "European Broadcasting Union" pick original songs and artists to represent them in Eurovision competition. In the 1950s, the field was limited to a dozen nations in Western Europe, but by now, the number is up to 46, including Eastern Europe, Eurasia and even Australia. It's generally a fizzy-pop extravaganza, with over-the-top performances punctuated by columns of fire, smoke, lasers, video projections, wind machines, wacky dance moves, eye-searing costumes, even shiny robots in strange headgear, an adorable group of grannies and a kinda/sorta vampire.

Ukraine was the host this time out since they won last year and they chose Kiev as the site. The theme was "Celebrate Diversity," even though the hosts were three white guys, which created some controversy.

Salvador Sobral with his Eurovision trophy
With a new (and apparently more complicated) scoring system in place, Portugal took the crown for the first time ever, with Salvador Sobral singing a sweet love song called "Amar pelos dois" or "Loving For The Both of Us." It's a melancholy, haunting ballad in the Portuguese Fado style, sung simply and softly, with no major frills in terms of explosions or milkmaids or disco balls. Not a driving dance beat to be found! And it's in Portuguese, which is unusual, since most of the songs entered are in English.

Bulgaria and Kristian Kostov's "Beautiful Mess" came in second, with Moldova, Belgium, Sweden, Italy, Romania, Hungary, Australia and Norway finishing out the Top Ten. There were plenty of unique (some might even say bizarre) choices, like Romania's yodel/rap/pop entry, "Yodel It!" by Ilinica featuring Alex Florea and Moldova's "Hey Mamma" performed by the Sunstroke Project featuring an "Epic Sax Guy" named Sergey Stepanov, just to keep you in a more typical Eurovision frame of mind.

Next year... Lisbon! In the meantime, it would be lovely if Sobral (and his sister, who wrote the song) get some international attention.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Humana Festival 2017: RECENT ALIEN ABDUCTIONS Continues to Haunt

If there is one play from this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays it's hard to forget, it's Recent Alien Abductions by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, directed by Actors Theatre of Louisville Artistic Director Les Waters.

The thing is, Recent Alien Abductions isn't about alien abductions. Instead, Cortiñas unspools a story about family secrets, betrayal, and the violent aftereffects of American Colonialism, as a Puerto Rican man named Álvaro, played beautifully by Jon Norman Schneider, concocts a conspiracy theory around a 1994 episode of The X-Files called Little Green Men. That episode supposedly took place in Puerto Rico, even though Álvaro recognizes from the beginning that the foliage isn't remotely Puerto Rican, and the character he identifies with, a boy also named Álvaro, speaks English with a Mexican accent.

Most of us are familiar with that kind of dramatic license (or dramatic laziness), but to Álvaro, the errors bespeak something deeper. He also thinks that the episode in syndication has been changed from the one he saw the first time. And when he adds that up, he finds a message just for him, straight from The X-Files.

But the story Cortiñas is laying out doesn't stick with Álvaro or his X-Files obsession. Just as Little Green Men sent Mulder to a fake Puerto Rico, Cortiñas sends the action of his play to a fake Puerto Rican house created on the stage of the Pamela Brown Theatre, where we meet Álvaro's mother, who is in poor health physically and mentally, and his brutish brother Néstor, along with Néstor's wife and a friendly neighbor. Bobby Plasencia takes Néstor, a creep and a bully, to uncomfortable places, while Mia Katigbak is sad and affecting as his mother, Carmen H. Herlihy adds warmth as neighbor Beba, and Elia Monte-Brown does her best as Néstor's wife, whose role is somewhat underwritten.

The conflict arises with the arrival of a visitor from the United States, a woman named Patria played by Ronete Levenson with competing strands of strength and naivete. Patria knew Álvaro, who we now learn is dead, and she wants permission from his family to publish the stories he wrote -- science fiction, of course -- as a way of honoring her friend and creating a legacy for him. But there was a reason Álvaro left, a reason he never came back, and a reason he immersed himself in writing far-out stories. When the truth of his past was too hard to bear, Álvaro wrapped himself in fantasy and fiction.

Recent Alien Abductions sets its own pace, with quiet moments where you really need to pay attention, and an explosive scene of violence where you'd really like to look away. Cortiñas has built his play with significant challenges and landmines as part of its structure.

First, there's the 30+-minute monologue that opens the play, with Schneider alone on stage, framed by a ghastly green light around the proscenium. That sets a heavy burden for Schneider, since he is carrying the whole story without any technical bells or whistles to help. He is a very engaging performer and there is certainly justification for setting the character of Álvaro apart from the action. Still, that's a long time to sit with one image.

Jon Norman Schneider in Recent Alien Abductions
Photo by Bill Brymer
Later in the play, Cortiñas sets up an extended scene played off-stage, where we can hear the voices of actors Herlihy, Katigbak and Monte-Brown, but we can't see any of them. That, too, is well supported by the script, as unseen -- but heard -- action from the past is a critical piece of the mystery. But again, even if the reason for the scene is clear, it's somewhat difficult to follow as executed here.

There is no denying that Recent Alien Abductions is a tricky script from beginning to end. And yet... And yet, it is compelling, intense and haunting in the end.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Humana Festival 2017: Surviving a Wedding in I NOW PRONOUNCE

When I made my living writing romance novels, I wrote a lot of books set in and around weddings. Runaway brides, runaway grooms, bridezillas, bridesmaids hooking up with groomsmen, the bride and her identical twin sister switching places before the wedding... You name it, I wrote it. I did not, however, write anybody dropping dead at the altar.

That is the premise of Tasha Gordon-Solmon's I Now Pronounce, which was the first play I saw at this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays. At Actors Theatre of Louisville, Solmon's play starts with the rabbi who is officiating, played by the adorable Ray DeMattis, all alone in the middle of the Bingham Theatre. DeMattis has the skill and charm to hold the stage with ease, even as the rabbi he's playing goes farther and farther off track. He's so cute you don't mind that he's calling the groom something different every time he mentions him -- Aaron, Abraham, Anton -- or that he's really not well. And then disaster strikes. Before the "I do" part of the proceedings, the rabbi keels over, and we've lost him.

Ray DeMattis in I Now Pronounce by Tasha Gordon Solmon
Photo by Bill Brymer.
What happens next is the aftermath. Is the wedding cursed? Does anybody really want to get married in the wake of a dead rabbi?

The bride is holed up by herself, refusing to speak to anyone, while the groom is hanging out with two groomsmen, a cynical player who thinks marriage is a horrible idea, anyway, and a sweet but sloppy guy whose own marriage is in tatters. There are two bridesmaids, as well, trying to convince the bride to come out of hiding. One is very, very drunk and saying inappropriate things, while the other is a control freak. Neither has a date for the wedding, and that's an issue, too. We also see three tiny flower girls in matching outfits, shrieking and running around the wedding venue looking for ghosts and speculating on whether the rabbi's death means everybody else is going to drop dead, too.

By the end of the play, both bride and groom have pondered what it means to be committed to somebody else and have contemplated fleeing, insults are hurled, mortality is pondered, one couple has sex under the chuppah, and everybody pretty much gets skewered by everybody else. Most of the invective seems warranted as, all in all, they're a pretty unpleasant bunch without a whole lot of coping skills. Well, except for the flower girls. They're expected to be juvenile, after all.

Gordon-Solmon's script is especially hard on Eva, the controlling bridesmaid, as she gets ripped up and down for not being able to hang onto a man. Actress Satomi Blair makes Eva appealing enough that the attacks seem excessive, and when they're coming from Jason Veasey's slick groomsman Dave, they slide right over the line into misogyny. Against the backdrop of a wacky romantic comedy, the sexist tone doesn't play well, and the fact that both bridesmaids are desperate for a man heightens the problem.

The issues Gordon-Solmon raises are messy and complicated in a world where Say Yes to the Dress may never end, but Girls, The Mindy Project and New Girl -- all shows pitched to Millennials and centered on issues of growing up and finding or rejecting love and commitment -- are winding down*. And then there's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which takes the insanity of modern relationships one step farther.

Clearly people are still getting married. Clearly people are still breaking up. Clearly people are still pinning all their hopes and dreams on a fantasy wedding that may or may not end in disaster even if the rabbi doesn't meet his maker in the middle of the ceremony. There's conflict and real emotion to be mined there. I'm just not sure how much I Now Pronounce adds to the conversation.

*Girls just ended, The Mindy Project is finished after one more season, and New Girl is probably not coming back.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Playwright Lynn Nottage Wins Her 2nd Pulitzer Prize for SWEAT

The 2017 Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday, including three awards -- for international reporting on Vladimir Putin and Russia's criminal tactics to wield influence in other countries, C. J. Chivers' feature writing about a Viet Nam vet caught up in the legal system, and freelance photographer Daniel Berehulak's breaking news photography of a Chicago mother and son -- to The New York Times; a Pulitzer in national reporting to David A. Fahrenthold of The Washington Post for his stories on Donald Trump's shady use of his own charities; an award to the New York Daily News and ProPublica in the public service category for Sarah Ryley's stories on eviction abuses; and an editorial writing prize to Art Cullen of the tiny Storm Lake Gazette in Storm Lake, Iowa.

Theatre critic Hilton Als of The New Yorker was also singled out for his "bold and original reviews," including his pieces on bullies and pop psychology in Dear Evan Hansen, two looks at the "maddening sexist, racist, restless, complicated, and important dramas" of Eugene O'Neill, and "Gay Reflections, Onstage" in four very different theatrical pieces.When congratulating Als on his prize, The New Yorker's twitter account linked to a beautiful musing he wrote on the movie Moonlight, showcasing the lyrical style and deft analysis that characterizes Als' writing.

On the "Letters, Drama & Music" side of the Pulitzer equation, Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Underground Railroad, "a smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America." Whitehead's National Book Award winning novel creates a physical railway, with tracks and tunnels underneath American soil, taking former slave Cora from state to state, from one abomination to the next, one step ahead of dangerous slave catchers, as she tries to escape to both metaphorical and actual freedom.

And in my favorite category, Drama, Lynn Nottage, who happens to be one of my favorite playwrights, has won her second Pulitzer Prize, this time for Sweat, her "nuanced yet powerful drama that reminds audiences of the stacked deck still facing workers searching for the American dream." Nottage is the first woman playwright to receive the Pulitzer twice.

Lynn Nottage
Sweat was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of its United States History Cycle. After the Oregon production and a run at Arena Stage in Washington DC, Sweat moved to New York's Public Theater, where it was popular enough to be extended three times. The accolades the play received, including the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, earned Nottage her first trip to Broadway at the same time Paula Vogel, another Pulitzer winner, made it with her play Indecent. Plays written by female playwrights on Broadway are enough of a rarity that The New York Times interviewed both Nottage and Vogel about the phenomenon.

The Public Theater production of Sweat, directed by Kate Whoriskey, moved to Broadway's Studio 54, where it opened in previews March 4, 2017. Its official opening was March 26.

For more information on all of this year's Pulitzer Prize winners, check out the Pulitzer site here.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Illinois Theatre Looks for RESISTANCE • REVOLUTION • RESURGENCE in 2017-18

Illinois Theatre, the producing arm of the University of Illinois Department of Theatre, has announced the schedule for its 50th anniversary season. Under the theme "Resistance • Revolution • Resurgence," Illinois Theatre will offer Robert Penn Warren's political cautionary tale All the King's Men; followed by Tom Stoppard's Travesties, a "cryptic-crossword of a modern classic" comedy; Sarah Ruhl's funny, sexy and quite moving play In the Next Room, or the vibrator play;the Sondheim/Weidman dark and dangerous musical Assassins, which never seems to go out of style; Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare's finest; and a provocative new play by Robert O'Hara called Barbecue.

The line-up of topical plays and the inclusion of some exciting new directors makes for a very intriguing season for Illinois Theatre.

This is what their press release has to say about the whys and the wherefores:
"Celebrating 50 years of creating excellence in performance, design, technology, management, and scholarship, Illinois Theatre invites you to join us as we examine themes timely and timeless. Theatre’s powerful exploration of human experience stands as a reminder that great difficulties have been overcome with inquiry, analysis, critique, and persistence—always persistence. Our productions will delve into issues of gender and political corruption; we consider the role of art during the Russian Revolution; we see dawning female sexual consciousness in the Victorian era; we gawk at the twisted dreams festering in a collection of presidential assassins; laugh at the confusions of love, lust and identity in a classic Shakespearean comedy; and experience the cultural difference between two families: one black, one white. This season of plays plumb the depths (and heights) of diverse human experience, and we invite you to join us for a season of laughter, love, pain, and triumph."
And here's more info on the individual plays, including directors and dates:

All the King’s Men
By Robert Penn Warren
Tom Mitchell, director
Illinois Theatre presents the quintessential American political saga of Willie Stark, a charismatic populist who rockets to the Louisiana statehouse and sets his sights on Washington. With an all-female cast, this production depicts the hyper-masculine 1930s backrooms where “good old boys” jockey for power. Robert Penn Warren adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the stage and for two film versions.
September 28 to 30 and October 4 to 8, 2017

By Tom Stoppard
Robert G. Anderson, director
Vladimir I. Lenin, James Joyce, and artist Tristan Tzara walk into a library—and the world is transformed. Tom Stoppard’s supremely literate comedy—with a wink and a nod to Oscar Wilde—imagines lively encounters between three revolutionaries who changed the world of politics, literature, and art. Presented by Illinois Theatre in association with the "1917/2017: Ten Days That Shook the World/Ten Days That Shake the Campus" initiative.
October 19 to 21 and 26 to 29, 2017

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
By Sarah Ruhl
Lisa Gaye Dixon, director
In the waning years of the 19th century, the age of electricity enlivens the possibilities for human satisfaction. A path-breaking physician treats the “hysteric” needs of his female patients while overlooking domestic discontent in his own home. Illinois Theatre examines love and marriage, artistic inspiration, and burgeoning female sexuality. Viewed through a blushing comic lens of sexual awakening and desire, audiences will surely find moments of identification, sympathy, and laugh-out-loud acknowledgement. This production is for adult audiences only.
Contains adult content
Oct 26 to 28 and November 1 to 5, 2017

Stephen Sondheim, composer and lyricist
John Weidman, librettist
J.W. Morrissette, director
"Murder is a tawdry little crime; it’s born of greed, or lust, or liquor. Adulterers and shopkeepers get murdered. But when a president gets killed, when Julius Caesar got killed...he was assassinated." —John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald in Assassins.
Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Stephen Sondheim and librettist John Weidman take aim at American ideals of prosperity and fortune. Illinois Theatre presents this powerful musical examination of the blood-curdling (and banal) impulses of would-be assassins who pursue their own versions of the American dream.
February 1 to 3 and 7 to 11, 2018

Twelfth Night, or What You Will
By William Shakespeare
Brenda DeVita, guest director
Featuring a shipwreck, lost siblings, false identities, gender confusion, and star-crossed love, this production from Illinois Theatre is sure to excite every aficionado of Shakespeare. Guest director Brenda DeVita, artistic director of the American Players Theatre, has her Krannert Center debut at the helm of this lively, timeless comedy.
March 1 to 3 and 8 to 11, 2018 1-3

By Robert O’Hara
Chuck Smith, guest director
The O’Mallery family gathers in a local park to confront a sibling about her substance abuse. Is it a made-for-reality-television event? Not quite. As the narrative unspools, members of the family attack and retreat. Familiar tropes from domestic dramas give way to startling new revelations as a family’s identity shape-shifts across an evolving landscape of race, class, and consciousness. Illinois Theatre welcomes playwright Robert O’Hara to our community as we produce his exciting new comedy, directed by the Goodman Theatre's Chuck Smith.
Contains adult content
Mar 29 to 31 and April 4 to 8, 2018

For more information, take a look at the Illinois Theatre website or check out their Facebook page.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

New Route Theatre Presents HER*STORY March 24 to 26

In keeping with its mission to create "professional quality theatre using a broad spectrum of artists who represent the community in all of its diversity," New Route Theatre focuses its energy and its productions on stories often overlooked by other theaters in the area

Heather Carnahan
This week, New Route Theatre will present something they're calling Her*Story, or "A Showcase of Original Personal Stories by Women from the Bloomington Normal Community." There's a lot of information packed in there, but it's important. Yes, these are her stories. They are new, they come from the heart, they represent what individual women find important, and they come from women in this community, like contributors Lauren Berry, Kat Gregory, Elaine Hill, Jajwanica Johnson, Genevieve Pilon and Diane Walker and co-creators Heather Carnahan and Rachel Lewis. Carnahan, a graduate of Illinois State University's Masters program in theatre, also serves as director.

Rachel Lewis
What will you see? Her*Story is composed of "original stories reflecting on moments that impacted the contributors’ lives. This performance piece provides insights into what it means to be a woman facing the challenges of today’s society. Stories elicit both laughter and tears, frustration and anger, as these remarkable women bravely share their stories of both joy and heartbreak."

Performance are scheduled for Friday and Saturday March 24 & 25 at 7:30 pm and Sunday the 26th at 2:30 pm at the First Christian Church located at 401 West Jefferson Street in Bloomington. And admission is also a bargain -- you can either donate any feminine care product you choose or $5.00 at the door.

For more information, click here to see the event's Facebook page.

Saturday, March 18, 2017


The Chicago version of Concert for America: Stand Up, Sing Out! -- billed as "a star-studded benefit concert highlighting the diversity and hope that is America at its best" -- will indeed be star-studded. The first two Concerts for America took place in New York, but this one, scheduled for March 20 at 8 pm at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, is Chicago's own.

The list of performers includes cast members from the blockbuster Chicago company of Hamilton as well as Alice Ripley, a Tony winner for Next to Normal, pop star Melissa Manchester, and Chita Rivera, a ten-time Tony Nominee who won for Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Rink. Rivera's daughter Lisa Mordente serves as director of the concert.

Ripley, Manchester and Rivera will be joined by Ana Gasteyer, probably best known for her years on Saturday Night Alive, although she's also done her share of Broadway shows and television and she headlined Wicked in Chicago, and Christine Pedi, a frequent Forbidden Broadway performer who is currently in Chicago as part of a Hamilton spoof called Spamilton.

From the world of television, you'll find Sharon Gless of Cagney & Lacey fame, actors Torrey DeVitto and Colin Donnell of TV's Chicago Med, and Miranda Rae Mayo and Yuri Sardarov of Chicago Fire. Donnell has a lot of stage credits, as well, starring in Anything Goes, Jersey Boys and Violet on Broadway and the Encores! version of Merrily We Roll Along opposite Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The list of performers should be considered tentative, but those are the people expected as of a few days ago.

Tickets for Concert for America: Stand Up, Sing Out! are available at my.auditoriumtheatre.org or at the Auditorium Theatre box office. The concert benefits five organizations devoted to protecting human rights: the NAACP, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, National Immigration Law Center, The Sierra Club Foundation and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

If you can't get a ticket or you're not close enough to Chicago to see the concert in person, you can catch it on Facebook Live or live-streaming at ConcertsforAmerica.com starting at 8 pm (Central time) on Monday, March 20.

Monday, March 6, 2017

American Theatre Critics Announce 2017 Steinberg New Play Award Finalists

The American Theatre Critics Association has announced the six finalists for this year's Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, which recognizes the best scripts that premiered professionally outside New York City during 2016. With $40,000 total presented during the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Steinberg/ATCA Awards represent the "largest national new play award program of its kind." Three playwrights will receive recognition, with a top award of $25,000 and two citations of $7,500 each.

The six finalists for 2017 include two plays first produced by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and four productions total from Chicago theaters, which says a lot about the city's commitment to new work and theatrical excellence. Playwright Tracy Letts has been nominated before for his work with Steppenwolf, with a citation for Superior Donuts in 2009. Among the other playwrights in the group, Michael Cristofer took top honors way back in 1996 for his play Amazing Grace. For the complete list of previous honorees, click here.

This year's finalists are:

The Ice Treatment by Nate Eppler. Premiered at Actors Bridge Ensemble, Nashville. "'Compelling, with fast moving story and well-constructed dialogue...plus a cosmonaut,' opined one panelist of Eppler’s darkly funny take on celebrity, concerning a 'modern day, working-class monster—or is she?' 'Always on the verge of careening out of control, the tonal shifts are wild,' chimed in others of this 'interrogation of the American Dream' as an ice skater 'writes her own story, regardless of the truth.'"

in a word by Lauren Yee. Produced via the National New Play Network with a rolling world premiere at the San Francisco Playhouse, Cleveland Public Theatre and Straw Dog Theatrein Chicago. "'Important and honest questions are being asked, here,' commented one panelist. 'Yee’s masterful drama about a mother's living nightmare after a child's disappearance is a mystery of word puzzles' that are 'lyrical and haunting and very well-constructed.' 'To have an ending that is satisfying dramatically but still appropriately unresolved is a tough nut to crack and this one does it.'"

Man in the Ring by Michael Cristofer. Premiered at the Court Theatre, Chicago. With “the inexorable feel of a classic tragedy,” this drama “with its Caribbean songs and its rhythm and thrust, seems at first to be a play of beautiful and utter simplicity. But au contraire.” Based on the true story of a boxer who killed a man in the ring, “the playwright threads through guilt and tragedy, weaving past and present together seamlessly.” This rich play stays “within the playwright’s total control while allowing for the frayed edges that make it feel alive and not premeditated.”

Mary Page Marlowe by Tracy Letts. Premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago. "'Generous and incredibly specific,' Letts’ play drew panelists in 'by both the flawed, multifaceted woman at the play’s center and how the non-linear storytelling painted this vivid picture of her.' Added others: 'The beauty of this play, the originality, the well-crafted scenes – with a scope so much larger than so many "issue" plays' brought to life 'an imperfect, fascinating, stalwart character…who doesn’t yield her story to any of the people around her.'"

Time Is On Our Side by R. Eric Thomas. Premiered at Sympatico Theatre, Philadelphia. "Who gets to tell our stories? And why do they tell them? Those are some of the questions asked in Thomas' tale of podcasters who discover a hidden diary. The play features 'fantastic language,' and 'sharp wit' that 'could have become a sentimental mess at any moment but somehow always saved itself.'"

Visiting Edna by David Rabe. Premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago. "With 'extraordinarily constructed dialogues and monologues that are simultaneously wide-ranging and super specific,' Rabe’s play is primarily focused on a dying mother and her son but with characters including her TV…and Cancer itself. 'While aging and dying may be all around us in the theater, right now,' commented one panelist, 'I found this play particularly brave and honest and deep, without getting sentimental or trying to be existentially profound, about what it means to face death (both for mother and son). I can’t shake this play. And I don’t want to.'"

The finalists were selected from eligible scripts recommended by ATCA members and evaluated by a committee of 17 ATCA members led by Lou Harry of the Indianapolis Business Journal/IBJ.com.

Awards will be presented on April 8, 2017, during the last weekend of Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN: Week 3 of the 6 Week Film School at the Normal Theater

Strangers on a Train, the 1951 psychological thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is a direct descendant of the first movie in the Normal Theater's Six Week Film School -- Shadow of a Doubt -- with the same rapid escalation of tension, the same kind of charmingly psychotic killer, and the same cruelty towards the women in its cast of characters.

What Strangers on a Train has that Shadow of a Doubt doesn't is a diabolically good hook. Strangers on a Train is what you might call "high concept" before that idea became popular. What it's about -- two strangers meeting on a train and one proposing they "exchange" murders so they can both get rid of inconvenient people without getting caught -- is right there in the title.

Yes, Guy and Bruno are strangers. And they meet on a train. What seems like an innocuous conversation turns creepy quickly, however, when Bruno, the affable psychopath, offers to kill Guy's greedy wife (she's pregnant, but not by him, and she won't divorce him), if Guy will knock off Bruno's annoying father. It's based on a Patricia Highsmith novel of the same title. Highsmith's Strangers has some significant differences, even if the basic idea -- the murder swap that Bruno proposes -- is the same. Highsmith makes it grimmer and more cynical, but I prefer Hitchcock's version, created by screenwriter Czenzi Ormonde from a treatment by Whitfield Cook after Hitchcock reportedly tossed out what famed mystery novelist Raymond Chandler had provided.

Highlights of the film include Farley Granger's performance as Guy, the handsome tennis star with decent impulses but some definite shades of gray, Robert Walker taking Bruno into unsavory territory and then some, a famous back-and-forth tennis match, more than one pair of eyeglasses, a distinctive lighter, and a dizzying carousel ride. If you're a fan of TV's Bewitched, you may also enjoy seeing Samantha's Aunt Clara (Marion Lorne) as Bruno's indulgent mother.

Strangers on a Train is really, really good at ratcheting up suspense. That will be even more apparent on the big screen at the Normal Theater, offered free tonight at 7 pm as part of Professor Bill McBride's Six Week Film School. You'll find supporting materials and food for thought here on the Normal Theater website.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Six Week Film School Features Bergman and Grant in Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS

Tonight is Week 2 of Bill McBride's Six Week Film School at the Normal Theater. Professor McBride hosted a Film Noir series last fall, but this time he's focusing on Alfred Hitchcock. It doesn't get any better for film students than Hitchcock, the master of suspense who was also a master of "the stylized language of cinema." You'll find Hitchcock movies on almost every film school syllabus because he employed so many different cinematic techniques to create suspense and keep his audience connected as well as recoiling. 

I'm sorry I'm a week late to talk about Shadow of a Doubt, the creepy "Merry Widow Murderer" movie that centers on a family in a small town and how young Charlie (played by Teresa Wright) unravels the mystery of her charming Uncle Charlie (the reason she got her name) and just why he's come to visit after so long. Joseph Cotten, a warm, appealing actor, creates a portrait of Uncle Charles that's all the more creepy because he seems like such a regular guy. Hitchcock casts evil into the midst of an apple-pie sort of town, with a Little Charlie/Big Charlie duality that makes all of us feel guilty.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman steam up the screen in Notorious.
Notorious, this week's Hitchcock, is one of his best, too, with another sympathetic villain in Claude Rains' Alexander Sebastian, who happens to be a rich Nazi hanging out in South America in 1946. The minute I said "Nazi" I'm sure you jumped back with "Sympathetic? A Nazi?" but it's Sebastian's love for Alicia Huberman, the "notorious" woman in the title, played by Ingrid Bergman at her most luminous, that makes him sympathetic even as it proves his undoing. Alicia is the daughter of another Nazi, one who's been uncovered and prosecuted in Florida before the movie starts. Dark and devilish spy Cary Grant (it's no coincidence his character's name is Devlin) puts Miss Huberman between a rock and a hard place (sexual innuendo intended) when he forces her to get close to Alexander Sebastian to infiltrate the gang of bad guys.

The sexual politics in the film are definitely dicey -- let's just say in today's world it could've been called "Slut Shaming" just as easily as "Notorious" -- and Devlin is a rat if ever there was one. Because of her father's crimes and her own reputation as a party girl, Alicia is a pawn in a game created by a whole lot of controlling, judgmental, cruel men. It doesn't matter to Devlin if he punches her or pimps her out or almost kills her. He's handsome. He's cynical. His important big-guy spy stuff is much more important than any woman. And, in fact, the notion that all the punishment Alicia gets may just be what she deserves to clean away the "spots" of her sexuality is definitely present.

Hitchcock was often creepy about his female characters and the way he treats Alicia Huberman is no exception, even as she does show a certain agency as a sleuth and we are given some focus on her point of view. Bergman's big-screen persona and charisma function to give her character both sensuality and virtue, to make her seem like a real, three-dimensional human being, no mere victim or paper doll to be cut to size. We know she's good and honorable, no matter how notorious she is or how many smutty comments a roomful of American agents toss her way. In the end, the fact that she has been known to drink to excess and have sex, including with Devlin and Sebastian, makes her more sympathetic and attractive, not less.

It doesn't hurt that Cary Grant has his own big-screen persona and charisma working on all cylinders and the sparks Bergman and Grant create together make Notorious work really, really well.

The famous sweeping shot to a key in Bergman's hand, a huge coffee cup, smoke and mirrors, the use of light and shadow, off-kilter angles, flipping point-of-view, a staircase of doom, the MacGuffin in a wine cellar... And the sexual politics. All fodder for a ripping good discussion of Hitchcock as a cinematic artist.

Notorious will be screened tonight at 7 pm at the Normal Theater. The movies included in the Six Week Film School are offered free of charge, and the program includes a post-show discussion with Professor McBride. Click here for McBride's notes on the film, including links to some excellent reading material.

Next week: Strangers on a Train. After that, McBride's schedule includes Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

LA LA LAND Leads Oscar Nominations

The 2017 Oscar nominations were announced online this morning with a global event filmed in six different cities.

Moving the Academy away from the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, seven actors of color were nominated this year, with Denzel Washington in the race for Best Actor for Fences and Loving's Ruth Negga earning a nomination as Best Actress. In supporting categories, actresses Viola Davis (Fences), Naomie Harris (Moonlight) and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) were nominated along with actor Mahershala Ali (Moonlight). English-Indian actor Dev Patel is also in the Best Supporting Actor race for Lion, and Moonlight's director Barry Jenkins was nominated, only the third African-American in Oscar history in the Best Director category. Who are the others? John Singleton was nominated in 1991 for Boyz in the Hood, followed by Lee Daniels in 2009 for Precious. In 2014, England's Steve McQueen became the first black Brit to earn a Best Director Oscar nod. His film, 12 Years a Slave, won Best Picture that year, although Mexico's Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for Gravity, making Cuarón the first Latin American man to win in that category.

La La Land and its whopping 14 nominations -- tying All About Eve and Titanic for the most ever -- shows that it doesn't hurt your Oscar chances to keep Hollywood and a reverence for old movies front and center in your film. That didn't help the Coen Brothers' Hail Caesar, however, which took only one nomination, for its production design.

If there were any surprises on the list, it was probably that the Hollywood Powers That Be have apparently forgiven Mel Gibson for his many public transgressions, nominating him for Best Director for Hacksaw Ridge, while overlooking Amy Adams, considered a likely prospect for a Best Actress nod, Finding Dory, not one of the choices for Best Animated Feature, and Martin Scorsese and his film Silence, greeted with a whole lot of silence instead of nominations. Silence did earn a cinematography nod for Rodrigo Prieto.

At the moment, given all its nominations and the buzz going in, La La Land is certainly the front-runner for Best Picture. But it has engendered some controversy for its lily-white take on jazz as an art form as well as some unapologetic mansplaining, so the stunner that is Moonlight might just sneak in there by the time the Oscar ceremony rolls around on February 26th. I hope so. Moonlight deserves it.

Here's a list of nominees in major categories:

Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences

Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Emma Stone, La La Land
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

Luke Davies, Lion
Eric Heisserer, Arrival
Barry Jenkins, Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures
August Wilson, Fences

Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou, The Lobster
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Mike Mills, 20th Century Women
Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water 

Greig Fraser, Lion
James Laxton, Moonlight
Rodrigo Prieto, Silence
Linus Sandgren, La La Land
Bradford Young, Arrival 

Land of Mine (Denmark)
A Man Called Ove (Sweden)
The Salesman (Iran)
Tanna (Australia)
Toni Erdmann (Germany)

Kubo and the Two Strings
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle

For the complete list of nominations and more information about the February 26 Oscar ceremony, click here for the Academy Awards official site.