Wednesday, December 13, 2017

And the Nominations Go To...

It's the time of year for early bird awarders like the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild to release their nominations, beginning the speculation on who (and what) among their choices will score Oscar nominations down the road. Emmy nominations, too, but those come so much later in the year that it's really all about the movies at this point. Still, both SAG and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the tiny group behind the Golden Globes) do celebrate television shows and performers, and that mix of TV and the movies is what sets them apart.

Without further ado, here are the Screen Actors Guild nominations. They're less frivolous and more indicative of later awards since their voters are the union of actors who will be nominating for those awards, too. First up, the film side of the aisle:

Female Actor in a Leading Role in a Motion Picture
Judi Dench, Victoria & Abdul
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

Male Actor in a Leading Role in a Motion Picture
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
James Franco, The Disaster Artist
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Female Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Hong Chau, Downsizing
Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird 

Male Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture
Steve Carell, Battle of the Sexes
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Cast in a Motion Picture
The Big Sick
Get Out
Lady Bird
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture
Baby Driver
War for the Planet of the Apes
Wonder Woman

And in television categories:

Female Actor in a Drama Series
Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things
Claire Foy, The Crown
Laura Linney, Ozark
Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid's Tale
Robin Wright, House of Cards

Male Actor in a Drama Series
Jason Bateman, Ozark
Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us
Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
David Harbour, Stranger Things
Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul

Female Actor in a Comedy Series
Uzo Aduba, Orange Is the New Black
Alison Brie, Glow
Jane Fonda, Grace and Frankie
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie

Male Actor in a Comedy Series
Anthony Anderson, black-ish
Aziz Ansari, Master of None
Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm
Sean Hayes, Will & Grace
William H. Macy, Shameless
Marc Maron, Glow

Female Actor in a TV Movie or Limited Series
Laura Dern, Big Little Lies
Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies
Jessica Lange, Feud: Bette and Joan
Susan Sarandon, Feud: Bette and Joan
Reese Witherspoon, Big Little Lies

Male Actor in a TV Movie or Limited Series
Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock: The Lying Detective
Jeff Daniels, Godless
Robert DeNiro, The Wizard of Lies
Geoffrey Rush, Genius
Alexander Skarsgård, Big Little Lies

Ensemble in a Drama Series
The Crown
Game of Thrones
The Handmaid's Tale
Stranger Things
This Is Us

Ensemble in a Comedy Series
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Orange Is the New Black

Stunt Ensemble in a Comedy or Drama Series
Game of Thrones
Stranger Things
The Walking Dead

Life Achievement Award
Morgan Freeman

The 2018 SAG Awards will feature an all-female list of presenters, with Kristen Bell as host of the ceremony. Look for the SAG Awards on January 21, 2018, at 8 pm Eastern/7 pm Central time, airing live on both TNT and TBS.

And now for the always freewheeling Golden Globe nominations:

Drama Motion Picture
Call Me by Your Name
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Musical or Comedy Motion Picture
The Disaster Artist
Get Out
The Greatest Showman
I, Tonya
Lady Bird

Actress in a Drama Motion Picture
Jessica Chastain, Molly's Game
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Meryl Streep, The Post
Michelle Williams, All the Money in the World

Actor in a Drama Motion Picture
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Tom Hanks, The Post
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Actress in a Musical or Comedy Motion Picture
Judi Dench, Victoria & Abdul
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Emma Stone, Battle of the Sexes
Helen Mirren, The Leisure Seeker

Actor in a Musical or Comedy Motion Picture
Steve Carell, Battle of the Sexes
Ansel Elgort, Baby Driver
James Franco, The Disaster Artist
Hugh Jackman, The Greatest Showman
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out

Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Hong Chau, Downsizing
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Best Director of a Motion Picture
Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Ridley Scott, All The Money in the World
Steven Spielberg, The Post

Best Screenplay of a Motion Picture
The Shape of Water
Lady Bird
The Post
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Molly's Game

Foreign Language Motion Picture
A Fantastic Woman
First They Killed My Father
In the Fade
The Square

Animated Film
The Boss Baby
The Breadwinner
Loving Vincent

Original Song
"Home" from Ferdinand
"Mighty River" from Mudbound
"Remember Me" from Coco
"The Star" from The Star
"This is Me" from The Greatest Showman

Original Score
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

And for television:

Drama TV series
The Crown
Game of Thrones
The Handmaid's Tale
Stranger Things
This Is Us

Actress in a Drama TV series
Caitriona Balfe, Outlander
Claire Foy, The Crown
Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Deuce
Katherine Langford, 13 Reasons Why
Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid's Tale

Actor in a Drama TV Series
Jason Bateman, Ozark
Sterling K. Brown, This is Us
Freddie Highmore, The Good Doctor
Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul
Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan

Musical or Comedy TV series
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Master of None
Will & Grace

Actress in a Musical or Comedy TV series
Pamela Adlon, Better Things
Alison Brie, Glow
Issa Rae, Insecure
Rachel Brosnahan, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Frankie Shaw, SMILF

Actor in a Musical or Comedy TV series
Anthony Anderson, black-ish
Aziz Ansari, Master of None
Kevin Bacon, I Love Dick
William H. Macy, Shameless
Eric McCormack, Will and Grace

Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Big Little Lies
Feud: Bette and Joan
The Sinner
Top of the Lake: China Girl

Actress in a Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Jessica Biel, The Sinner
Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies
Jessica Lange, Feud: Bette and Joan
Susan Sarandon, Feud: Bette and Joan
Reese Witherspoon, Big Little Lies

Actor in a Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Robert De Niro, The Wizard of Lies
Jude Law, The Young Pope
Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks
Ewan McGregor, Fargo
Geoffrey Rush, Genius

Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Laura Dern, Big Little Lies
Ann Dowd, The Handmaid's Tale
Chrissy Metz, This is Us
Michelle Pfeiffer, The Wizard of Lies
Shailene Woodley, Big Little Lies

Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Alfred Molina, Feud
Alexander Skarsgard, Big Little Lies
 David Thewlis, Fargo
David Harbour, Stranger Things
Christian Slater, Mr. Robot

Seth Myers will host the Golden Globes ceremony on January 7, 2018, at 8 pm Eastern/7 pm Central on NBC.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

My Favorite Movie! HOLIDAY Tonight and Saturday at the Normal Theater

When the Normal Theater asked Bloomington-Normal folks what holiday movies they might like to see, I piped up immediately with Holiday, the 1938 film based on a Philip Barry play, starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. I was definitely filled with holiday spirit when I saw that the Normal Theater had heard me and actually scheduled my beloved Holiday for two showings. It will be screened tonight at 7 pm and also Saturday the 16th at 1 pm. You can do one or both, but you can't go wrong as long as you get to see Holiday on the big screen.

You see, Holiday is one of my favorite movies of all time. Maybe THE favorite. Here's what I said about it the last time it came up on my blog:

I've been asked more than once why I like Holiday so well or why I like it better than The Philadelphia Story or Bringing Up Baby, better-known Grant/Hepburn collaborations. The answer is partly grounded in the fact that I got attached to Holiday when I was ten or eleven, and you really don't know why you like things at that age. You just do. But there's more to it than that.

I like Cary Grant, of course. He's at his most fetching here, as Johnny Case, man of the people, who came from nothing and worked really hard at some vague financial job that has made him a nice amount of money, so now he wants nothing more than to take his money and take a holiday around the world. It's sort of an anti-capitalist philosophy. Or maybe "capitalism that knows when enough is enough and then wants to have some fun." I like that refreshing attitude. Cary is also not terribly serious in this movie; he does acrobatic tricks, he messes up his hair, and he lets himself get kicked in the bootie to show he hasn't turned stuffy or puffed-up. But he still looks really good in a tux.

And then there's Kate. The plot of Holiday treats her far better than The Philadelphia Story where everybody keeps telling her that she's too perfect, she's an ice queen, she's judgmental, she needs to change while the male philanderers (her father) and alcoholics (her ex) are just fine the way they are. That always struck me as sexist and unpleasant and not very nice. Here, she's trying to do the right thing and find her own way, stuck in a pretentious, wealthy family she doesn't like much and at the same time desperately attracted to the man her sister has brought home as a fiance. As Linda Seton, Ms. Hepburn is as lively and vivacious as ever, plus she's warm and funny and nobody is blaming her for anything.

I also like the supporting cast, with Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon as an amusing pair of Johnny's friends who like Linda far better than her prissy sister and Lew Ayres as Linda's unhappy brother. Plus Binnie Barnes and Henry Daniell are hilarious as snooty relatives that Linda calls the Witch and Dopey.

There are serious issues here, and yet it's all treated lightly and sweetly, with enough romance ("Happy New Year, Johnny" and the almost kiss is my favorite) and funny stuff (with everybody doing gymnastic stunts and Punch and Judy in the old playroom) to keep the story moving. George Cukor's direction is dandy, with the emphasis on just how attractive Grant and Hepburn are. It's also really cool to see what the privileged set lived like in 1938. Special ties, special church, special parties... And that Manhattan mansion is pretty swell.

I should also note that the title Holiday does not refer to Christmas or New Year's, but to Johnny's plan to take a long holiday, a vacation, now that he's made the money he wants.

When it's Cary Grant playing Johnny, it's hard not to support his holiday. It's hard not to try to book a cabin on that ship and go right along with him. As Linda says, "If he wants to dream for a while, he can dream for a while, and if he wants to come back and sell peanuts, oh, how I'll believe in those peanuts!"

Right there with you, sister.

And I'll be right there at the Normal Theater, siding with Linda, rooting for Johnny, and sharing all the hijinks and high spirits.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Opening Tonight: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY at the Station Theatre

Last month, The New Yorker called Lauren Gunderson the most popular playwright you've never heard of. With an Steinberg/ATCA Award for I and You, the 2016 Lanford Wilson Award from the Dramatists Guild and the 2016 Otis Gurnsey Award, and nominations for the Susan Smith Blackburn and John Gassner Awards, Gunderson has emerged as a major force in American theater, so major that American Theatre recognized her as the most-produced playwright in the United States this year, ahead of people like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and August Wilson.

A big part of Gunderson's popularity this year is Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, which she co-wrote with her friend Margot Melcon. This look at Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice characters and how they might spend their holidays has struck a chord with theaters looking for a warm and witty option for their December schedules.

Urbana's Station Theatre will open their production of Christmas at Pemberley tonight, with performances running through December 16. As they put it, "As the holidays approach, revisit your favorite Pride and Prejudice characters as they gather at Pemberley, the home of Mr. and Mrs. Darcy. Middle sister Mary Bennet has come into her own as a confident woman full of curiosity and wit. But will her story end happily ever after? A true holiday delight, full of wit, warmth, and romance."

Joi Hoffsommer directs this Christmas at Pemberley, with a cast that includes Dominique Allen as Mary Bennet, Tyler Cook as Charles Bingley, Ashton Goodly as Arthur de Bourgh, Jenna Kohn as Lydia Wickham, Misty Martin as Anne de Bourgh, Aaron Miller as Fitzwilliam Darcy, Celia Mueller as Elizabeth Darcy, and Uche Nwansi as Jane Bingley.

You can make a reservation at the Station site or by calling 217-384-4000. Performances begin at 8 pm on weeknights and Saturdays from December 7 to 9 and 13 to 16, with a 3 pm matinee on Sunday the 10th.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


If you shed a tear when Psych took its final bow on the USA Network back in 2014, take heart. It wasn't that final after all.  

Psych stars James Roday and Dulé Hill, along with familiar supporting players Corbin Bernsen (Henry), Maggie Lawson (Juliet), Kirsten Nelson (Chief Vick) and Timothy Omundson (Detective Lassiter) are all back on USA for a Psych movie. We will be clued in on what's happened to Sean, the goofy sleuth pretending to have psychic powers to solve crimes, and his more sensible best friend, Gus, three years after we left them. They're now in San Francisco instead of the familiar San Diego, but the wacky tone and general craziness we came to expect from the original series is firmly in place. Series creator Steve Franks and Roday wrote the script.

In this new chapter of their adventures, we can expect to see those two "ambitious friends -- along with some returning fan-favorite characters -- come together during the holidays after a mystery assailant targets one of their own. A comedic thrill-ride follows, as the wild and unpredictable Psych team pursues the bad guys, justice … and, of course, food!" They'll be joined by the police (Juliet, Lassiter and Vick) and parents (Henry, who used to be a cop) who've always surrounded them, along with guest stars like Zachary Levi, Ralph Macchio and Jimmi Simpson. There is no Cary Elwes, who played Pierre Despereaux, the best frenemy they had, which is a disappointment, but we're told maybe he may appear in future reunion pics. We can only hope.

Cue the pineapples: Psych: The Movie premieres on USA on Thursday, December 7 at 7 pm Central time.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Nutcrackers, Nutcrackers Everywhere!

When Tchaikovsky wrote the music for The Nutcracker ballet, he could never have envisioned that it would become a holiday classic in the United States, with myriad performances in big cities and small towns everywhere. It seems to be especially popular around here. There are too many productions in Central Illinois to hit them all, but here are a few of your options:

The Littlest Nutcracker at the Normal Theater
December 1 at 6 pm, and December 2 at 2 and 6 pm
A local adaptation of Peter Tchaikovsky’s holiday favorite, featuring over 200 local dancers from Uptown Dance. "Take a trip to the Land of the Sweets with Clara and her Nutcracker Prince, onscreen and onstage in the second year of this new annual tradition at the Normal Theater."

Champaign Urbana Ballet at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
December 1 through 10
Performed by the Champaign Urbana Ballet with Tchaikovsky's score performed live by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra. "Join Clara, her Nutcracker Prince, and the talented young cast of the Champaign Urbana Ballet on a magical journey to a shimmering land of confectionary fairies, glittering global flair, and Tchaikovsky’s beloved score performed live by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra." Recommended for ages 5 and up. Guests are invited to being new or gently used children's coats, mittens, gloves, hats, scarves, and ear muffs for Krannert Center's clothing drive. There is a special need this year for large and extra-large coats for middle school boys. All collected items will go to the Champaign Unit 4 School District and Urbana School District 116. Donation boxes will be available in the lobby near Intermezzo cafe.

Twin Cities School of Dance at Braden Auditorium
December 1, 2 and 3
The student company from the Bloomington-Normal dance school presents its 36th Annual production of the classic ballet. You can see their poster at the top of this post. For tickets, contact Braden Auditorium at 309-438-5444.

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker/New York City Ballet On-Screen
December 2, 3 and 5 at Bloomington's New Vision Ovation Cinema Grill
December 3 at Wehrenberg Bloomington Galaxy 14
Although many companies use portions of George Balanchine's famous choreography for The Nutcracker, it is still a treat to see the New York City Ballet's iconic production of Balanchine's "stunningly successful achievement." "Experience the wonder of New York City Ballet’s iconic holiday classic on the big screen. In George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker Tchaikovsky’s beloved melodies transport the young and young at heart to a magical world where mischievous mice besiege a battalion of toy soldiers, and an onstage blizzard leads to an enchanted Land of Sweets. Balanchine’s stunning choreography shines amidst awe-inspiring set pieces, ornate costumes, and grand one-of-a-kind visual effects, like the one-ton Christmas tree that grows to an astonishing 40 feet." You can see a video preview here.

USA Ballet Academy Nutcracker at Bloomington Masonic Temple
Tea: December 2 at 3:30 pm at the Vrooman Mansion
Performance: December 10 at 3 pm
The dance academy offers a special tea in addition to their performance. About the tea: "All guests will enjoy a tea party where they dine with the characters, get a sneak peak of the ballet with a mini-performance, listen to the telling of the Nutcracker story, have a sing-a-long, make a craft, have their photo taken with the characters, and leave with a surprise gift. All of the female guests will also receive a tiara and a corsage. It really is a great way to make memories, and the price also includes a ticket for the performance of The Nutcracker on December 10th performed by USA Ballet Youth Ensemble." And about the performance: "Our rendition of the holiday classic is very family friendly and suitable for all ages. Enjoying The Nutcracker is a wonderful way to get into the holiday spirit."

Fathom Event: Bolshoi Ballet On-Screen
December 17 at 12: 55 pm
You'll have to drive to Springfield to find a movie theater with this Fathom Event, but it is, after all, the Bolshoi Ballet. "As the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve, Marie’s wooden nutcracker doll comes to life and transforms into a prince! Soon joined by her other toys that have also come to life, Marie and her prince embark on a dreamy unforgettable adventure. A holiday tradition for the whole family, The Nutcracker enchants the Bolshoi stage for two hours of enchantment and magic. Along with Tchaikovsky’s cherished score and some of the Bolshoi’s greatest artists, The Nutcracker remains a treasure not to be missed!" Choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich, with a libretto by Yuri Grigorovich (after E.T.A. Hoffmann and Marius Petipa).

Chicago Festival Ballet at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts
December 28 at 7:30 pm
Renowned dancer and choreographer Kenneth von Heidecke brings his Chicago Festival Ballet to the BCPA. His Nutcracker promises, "powerful jumps, endless turns and beautiful costumes and sets. Dancing mice, toy soldiers and twirling sugarplums are sure to add magic to your holiday season!"

For more information about any of these events, click the link under the bolded heading.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

LOCAL HERO Celebrates Scotland on TCM

Happy St. Andrew's Day! Not the golf course. This St. Andrew's is a holiday, Scotland's national day. Turner Classic Movies is celebrating St. Andrew's Day by offering a line-up of movies with connections to Scotland, with Wee Geordie, about a Scots boy who competes in the Melbourne Olympics, a comedy directed by Alexander Mackendrick called either High and Dry or The Maggie, something called Cruise of the Zaca, then The Master of Ballantrae, and, of course, Brigadoon, the one everybody thinks of first when they think "Scottish movie."

But the really special movie on the schedule is Local Hero, a lovely little piece from 1983 written and directed by Bill Forsyth. It stars Peter Riegert as an American businessman sent to a small fishing village on the coast of Scotland by his tycoon boss, played by Burt Lancaster. Riegert's character, called Mac, is supposed to be securing land to provide a base for Lancaster's company to drill for oil in the North Sea. Most of the locals are happy to help out, their eyes on the money Mac is offering, but one cranky old gent who lives in a shack presents an obstacle. And, as they say, complications ensue as Mac stays on in Ferness. Eventually the boss flies in to see what the delay is all about, adding to Mac's problems. Denis Lawson, Fulton Mckay and Peter Capaldi are part of the citizenry, as is Jenny Seagrove as a young woman named Marina who may or may not be a mermaid.

That mystery about the mermaid gives you a hint of the movie's off-beat humor and charm. It's not so much about a fish out of water, a brash American at sea in Scotland, but a story about a fairly good guy who discovers that he may not want what he thought he wanted, that there may be things in life he hasn't been paying attention to in his climb to the top.

Local Hero is a terrific movie, small but mighty, not unlike Comfort and Joy, another gem from Bill Forsyth. I don't know what's happened to Forsyth since he stopped making movies somewhere around 1999, but I wish he'd done more. There's nobody like him. And there's nothing like Local Hero. The scenery is gorgeous, Mark Knopfler's score is wonderful, and Forsyth's script and direction bring out the best in Reigert, Lancaster and Lawson.

TCM hasn't made it easy to see -- it's scheduled for 2:45 am Central time -- but you can always set your DVR, right? Local Hero is so worth it.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


As awards season begins, Oscar contenders like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri get wider releases to reach bigger audiences. If you've been waiting for this one, it opens tomorrow, November 30, in Bloomington-Normal at the Wehrenberg Cinema, if you want the cushy seat experience, or December 1 at The Art in Champaign, if you prefer a more intimate theater.

It's been getting lots of Oscar buzz, and not just for Frances McDormand's fierce performance as a hard-scrabble mother pushing to find justice for her daughter, who was raped and murdered outside their town. The movie itself, plus Martin McDonagh's screenplay and direction and Sam Rockwell's performance as a racist, messed-up cop, are also showing up on awards shortlists and predictions. So far, Three Billboards has three nominations for Film Independent Spirit Awards -- Best Female Lead for McDormand, Best Supporting Male for Rockwell and Best Screenplay for McDonagh -- with awards at a score of international film festivals and 11 nominations and two wins at the British Independent Film Awards.

You may know McDonagh as a playwright, with major work like The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Pillowman to his credit, or as a screenwriter and director of films like In Bruges. Violence, meanness, small towns and a streak of humor laced with cruelty show up frequently in his darkly cynical writing. They're certainly a part of Three Billboards, with critics talking about the rage and pain that fuel McDormand's role and the film as a whole.

For, Brian Tallerico calls Three Billboards "one of those truly rare films that feels both profound and grounded; inspirational without ever manipulatively trying to be so. Very few recent movies have made me laugh and cry in equal measure as much as this one. Very few films recently are this good," while Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post notes its timeliness, "when sexism in its most virulent forms has been revealed in a daily drumbeat of stories recounting unspeakable exploitation and abuse." She concludes: "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is as dark as they come, a pitch-black, often laceratingly funny look at human nature at its most nasty, brutish and dimwitted."

And if you're keeping an Oscar scorecard, you'll definitely want to check off Three Billboards. Dunkirk and The Post may be ahead of it in the Best Picture race, but McDormand and Rockwell are starting to climb in their categories. Don't count out that screenplay, either.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


Do you need a little Christmas, right this very minute? The Pantagraph's Holiday Spectacular, which features "[b]eautiful singing, hundreds of sparkly costumes, laughter and tears and lots of heart," returns to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts on December 1, 2 and 3. The Friday performance begins at 7:30 pm, with 2 pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday.

As in years past, Illinois State University professor Lori Adams directs this Holiday-palozza of entertainment, with Michael Schneider and Angela Bargmann as musical directors and Stacy Terry and Janet Hayslip as choreographers. Nancy Steele Brokaw has once again written the story for the musical and Marcia Basolo is back for her 16th year as executive producer.

We are assured that many audience favorites -- from "precision-dancing Toy Soldiers" to an "enormous all-cast Santa medley" and "mass choir Nativity" -- will be back, with new features to keep the production fresh.

The cast includes four actors (Kevin Alleman, Ed Campbell, Jennifer Rusk, Paul Vellella and Michelle Vought), an adult ensemble about 40 members strong, 50 children performers ranging in age from kindergarten to 8th grade, another 18 high schoolers, seven father/daughter teams, eight "Dobski dancers," 16 Wooden Soldiers, ten tappers, and a coterie of other groups who'll perform the opening number, a Frosty Follies, Christmas Wishes and Christmas Day numbers, an Ugly Sweater song, elves and reindeer dances and solos, a piece just for "Mr. Santa" and a Santa Claus Parade with ballerinas.

You can get tickets in person at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts box office, by phone (with an added charge) at 309-434-2777, or online at the BCPA website.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Paula Vogel's Unforgettable INDECENT on PBS Great Performances

When Sholem Asch's play The God of Vengeance opened on Broadway in 1923 -- in English for the first time after many performances across Europe in Yiddish -- the entire cast was arrested on charges of indecency. Why? Asch's story centered on a Polish Jewish man named Yekel*, conflicted by issues of faith as he kept a brothel on the floors beneath his family apartment. But the real kicker, the reason prominent actors like Morris Carnovsky and Sam Jaffe got hauled down to the pokey, was the lesbian part of the story. Asch wrote Yekel's daughter falling in love with a young prostitute from downstairs, including a beautiful and tender scene in the rain ending in a kiss between the two women. And that was simply too much for the authorities.

Playwright Paula Vogel took up the story surrounding Asch and The God of Vengeance in Indecent, a poetic and powerful play that marked Vogel's first Broadway production. That's remarkable in itself, that it that long to get to Broadway for someone like Paula Vogel, with a Pulitzer Prize for Drama to her credit for How I Learned to Drive, an Obie for The Baltimore Waltz, a pile of other awards and honors, and an illustrious career teaching playwriting (and chairing the department) at the Yale School of Drama.  

Indecent ran for 128 performances at the Cort Theatre, closing August 6, 2017, with Tony Awards for director Rebecca Taichman and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, and Tony and Drama Desk nominations for the play itself. Part of what Indecent deals with is the ephemeral nature of theater. In a beautiful image in Taichman's production, the Vengeance actors show us how they and their play turned to ashes, lost in the Holocaust after they returned to Poland. But Indecent is also about the echoes that remained after the production of The God of Vengeance was physically gone. After all, Indecent reminds us that the play did change the lives of the people involved in it, especially the narrator in the piece, a stage manager named Lemml, who continues to tell us exactly that. The God of Vengeance and its kiss in the rain did imprint itself on the audiences who saw it, and it has even been performed again in Yiddish.

Luckily for all of us, a performance of the Broadway production of Indecent was filmed last August so that it could be shared and replayed. Indecent was broadcast last Friday in the regular Great Performances slot on PBS stations, but it is also streaming right now and there are reports it will also be available on early next year.

I feared Indecent might lose some of its intimacy or its power on the small screen, but it translates beautifully. Central performances from Richard Topol as Lemml and Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson as the two women in the rain are especially strong and especially moving. Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis and Steven Rattazzi play many roles, creating a seamless ensemble that brings impressionistic scenes from Vengeance and the larger picture of Indecent to life.

Taichman's staging makes the most of music by Lisa Gutkin and Adam Halva, which sets the tone as it adds joy and energy, while projections designed by Tal Yarden contribute a Brechtian note to the theatrical proceedings. A nod to the Yiddish culture that informed Asch's Vengeance and the major culture clash that arose when the Eastern European Jewish immigrants got to New York comes off both poignant and timely.

On stage or on screen, Indecent is lovely, with a depth and tenderness that makes it unforgettable.

*The character has also been called Yankl or Yankel.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Lots of HOLIDAY INN Choices Coming Up

The Fred Astaire/Bing Crosby film musical Holiday Inn is generally considered a Christmas movie, probably because it's the place where Irving Berlin introduced (and won an Oscar for) the song "White Christmas." As a result, the 1942 Holiday Inn invariably shows up on television and in art-house and vintage movie theaters as part of their end-of-the-year schedules, even though in reality the movie covers all the holidays. You can see the 4th of July spirit in the poster at left.

In the film, Bing plays a singer ("I'll Capture Your Heart Singing") who wants out of his competitive show biz partnership with Fred Astaire (he's the one who captures your heart dancing, naturally). Bing decides to retreat to the country and live on a farm. Then he has the idea to turn the farm into an inn (Holiday Inn, naturally) where he can perform only on holidays. He'll loaf the rest of the time, but put on a show for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve, Lincoln's Birthday, Valentine's Day, Washington's Birthday, Easter... Basically whichever holidays Irving Berlin was inspired to write songs for. The plot hangs on those holidays, as Bing gets a romance in the form of Marjorie Reynolds, ex-partner Fred pops up at the Inn at an inconvenient time, their rivalry rekindles, and each gets the chance to shine in multiple numbers.

The movie came out in 1942, but didn't get translated into a Broadway show until 2016. The Broadway version imported Irving Berlin hits like "Blue Skies" and "Cheek to Cheek" from other Astaire and Crosby vehicles and thankfully took out "Abraham," which was performed with blackface in the movie, but the basic plot idea with its singer/dancer rivalry over romance and the inn in the country is still there. On Broadway, Bryce Pinkham took the Crosby role, while Corbin Bleu tapped into Astaire's shoes. Yes, that sounds a lot less starry, but they compensated with big production numbers and a whole lot of splashy costumes and sets in eye-popping colors. If you'd like to see for yourself, a performance of that Broadway version has been filmed to show on movie screens as well as through PBS Great Performances and its Friday-night Broadway's Best series.

Tonight is the night for the Broadway Holiday Inn on big screens as a Fathom Event. Around here, you have the option of 7:30 pm screenings at Willow Knolls 14 in Peoria, Savoy 16 outside Urbana, or Springfield 12. If that doesn't work in your schedule, never fear. PBS has your back. They'll be showing the same Holiday Inn on the small screen, which you can watch in the privacy of your own home, on Friday, November 24, at 8 pm Central time. After that, you can expect it to stream at on this Episodes page.

And if you are more into Bing and Fred and the original Holiday Inn, the Normal Theater will show the 1942 film on that same Friday, November 24, at 10 pm, as well as Sunday, November 26, at 1 pm. Or, if you want to see Bing and Fred on your own telly, Turner Classic Movies has a January 1, 2018 option at 7:30 am Central time.

That means you can see the boffo technicolor Broadway show and the classic black-and-white movie, both on the big screen or the small screen, and compare/contrast to your heart's content.

To recap, for a screening of the Broadway Holiday Inn, you can get to a movie theater tonight (November 16) or watch on TV a week from tomorrow (November 24) or stream it online after that, or see the classic movie later that night (November 24) or the following Sunday (November 26) or set your DVR for the first morning of the new year (January 1). So much Holiday Inn!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Opening Tonight: SOUTH PACIFIC at IWU

Long before Hamilton piled up all those Tony Awards and took home the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, before it started a dizzying war for tickets that fueled scalpers and prompted outrage at its high prices, Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific did it all first. After its Broadway opening in 1949, it ran for five years and 1925 performances, with Tony Awards for Best Musical, director Joshua Logan, its score (Rodgers), libretto (Hammerstein and Logan), producers (Hammerstein, Rodgers, Logan and Leland Hayward) and scenic design (Jo Mielziner) as well as for stars Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza and supporting performers Juanita Hall and Myron McCormick. The original cast recording sold over a million copies.  

South Pacific represented Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical translation of the short stories in John Michener's Tales of the South Pacific. Michener's stories focused on the cultural, financial and military interaction between indigenous peoples, immigrants and the global powers setting up operations on top of them, all things he saw when he himself was stationed in the South Pacific during World War II.

The musical South Pacific offered songs like "Some Enchanted Evening," "Younger Than Springtime," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," "There Is Nothing Like a Dame," and "Bali Ha'i," as characters Michener had created fell in love and faced danger against a multicultural backdrop. Its messages of tolerance and acceptance, of looking for understanding instead of hatred, is why South Pacific won its Pulitzer.

For Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Theatre Arts, professor Scott Susong directs a cast that includes Emily Hardesty and Madison Steele rotating in the role of Ensign Nellie Forbush, the cock-eyed optimist from Arkansas with a racist streak hidden under her nurse's uniform, with Timothy P. Foszcz as Emile de Becque, the wealthy planter Nellie falls for. There is, of course, a conflict between them -- the fact that he has two biracial daughters. As Nellie's "carefully taught" prejudice is revealed, the show's themes come into focus.

The other plotline with a culture clashe at its heart features Holden P. Ginn as handsome young American Lieutenant Cable and Megan Lai and Juna Shai alternating as Liat, his local love interest. Paola Lehman and Kira Rangel also alternate as Liat's mother, Bloody Mary, the Tonkinese woman who makes a living selling trinkets and junk to U.S. servicemen, with Connor Wildelka donning the coconut bra of Luther Billis, the rowdy Seabee who always has his eye on the main chance.

South Pacific opens tonight at 8 pm in the Jerome Mirza Theatre at McPherson Hall on Ames Plaza on the IWU campus in Bloomington. Performances continue until the matinee on Sunday, November 19 at 2 pm. For more information on this production, click here or here. For ticket information, call the School of Theatre Arts box office at 309-556-3232 or visit this box office page online.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Kevin Kline in PRESENT LAUGHTER Tonight on Great Performances

The Great Performances series on PBS is giving us a sparkling set of choices this fall, with a lighter-than-air musical She Loves Me last month, a look behind the curtain at Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights and Hamilton, Paula Vogel's fierce new play Indecent later this month, the stage version of an old Fred Astaire/Bing Crosby movie Holiday Inn closer to Thanksgiving,and tonight's Present Laughter, with Kevin Kline in a revival of the Noel Coward comedy.

Coward wrote Present Laughter (that's the adjectival "present" in the sense of  "occurring right now," not the verb or offering laughter up on a platter) just before World War II, directing and starring in the original production a few years later. It's hard not to see the character of Garry Essendine, a charmingly egocentric actor with a grand manner and a life full of overly dramatic complications and hijinks, as Coward himself, even though a host of great actors, from Simon Callow to Albert Finney, Frank Langella, Ian McKellen, Peter O'Toole, George C. Scott and even John Gielgud in a radio version, have tried to make Mr. Essendine their own.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel directed the latest Broadway revival with Kevin Kline, whose supporting cast includes Kate Burton, Kristine Nielsen, Reg Rogers and Cobie Smulders. This Present Laughter played at the St. James Theater from April to July of this year, and the role of Garry earned Kline his third Tony Award. Trivia note: Burton, who plays Garry's wife in this production, was the ingenue back in 1982 opposite George C. Scott.

As with She Loves Me, Present Laughter will air in the Friday evening Great Performances slot on most PBS stations. You can find it locally on either WTVP or WILL at 8 pm tonight (that's Central time) and if you can't get to a television, it's also streaming online. You'll also find a video preview, a scene demonstrating Garry's way with a dressing gown, Cobie Smulders acting slinky, and the director, producer and several cast members talking about the play and Kevin Kline.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Now Playing: SISTER ACT at Community Players

You remember Sister Act, right? The Whoopi Goldberg movie from 1992, where she plays a pop singer who hides out in a convent after witnessing a crime and then helps the nuns win a singing competition?

That movie got turned into a Broadway musical, without Whoopi, but with a new score by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics), book by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, and additional material from playwright Douglas Carter Beane. It was nominated for five Tony Awards, including nods for star Patina Miller and supporting nun Victoria Clark. Its score includes songs with a distinctly holy-roller flavor like "Take Me to Heaven," "Haven't Got a Prayer" and "Bless Our Show."

It's a big show with a big cast that should fill the stage nicely at Community Players. Marcia Weiss directs a cast of 32, including Latrisha Green as our girl Deloris Van Cartier, the night-club singer on the lam, and Sharon Russell as the no-nonsense Mother Superior who tries to keep her line.

Tonight's 7:30 pm performance is a preview, with regularly scheduled performances November 3 to 5, 10 to 12 and 17 to 19. Friday and Saturday evening performances begin at 7:30 pm, with Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm. For more information on the show, click here to see the Sister Act page at Community Players. You can also buy tickets directly from this page.

Can I hear an amen?

Now Playing: THREE TALL WOMEN at Heartland Theatre

Three Tall Women, Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1994 play about three stages of life, opens tonight at Heartland Theatre with a "pay what you can" preview performance beginning at 7:30 pm. This acerbic exploration of aging, mortality and disappointment is considered autobiographical for Albee, springing from his relationship with his mother.

To work through his issues, he's written his play around women called A, B and C, representing old age (A is 92 at the outset), middle age (B is 52) and youth (C is 26). In Act I, they are a wealthy, bitter, imperious woman, her caretaker and a representative from her lawyer's office, but in Act II, their characters shift a bit, showing how much they have in common as they progress through important chapters in their lives.

Albee himself directed the first production of Three Tall Women in Vienna in 1991. Since then, it's been produced off-Broadway and in London, with a new production starring Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill and directed by Joe Mantello set for Broadway next spring.

Heartland Theatre artistic director Rhys Lovell is directing their production, which runs through November 18. His A, B and C are Lynda Rettick, Devon Lovell and Emilia Dvorak, with Daniel Job in the non-speaking role of the Boy.

For showtimes and reservation information, click here. You can also call the box office at 309-452-8709 or email

Wednesday, November 1, 2017


The Illinois Shakespeare Festival and new artistic director John C. Stark have just announced what's in store for the summer of 2018, with all kinds of intriguing developments on the horizon.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare's domestic comedy about frisky housewives, their husbands and how they interact with Falstaff, a rowdy, blustering rascal, will open the Festival on Friday, July 5. The Merry Wives of Windsor was last performed at the Festival in 2010, in a sparkling production set in the 1920s. Deanna Jent, whose play Falling moved from St. Louis to New York with great acclaim and then back to Normal at Heartland Theatre, will direct this Merry Wives, which will get the theater at Ewing to itself that first week. Jent is an alumna of Illinois Wesleyan University, a professor of theatre at Fontbonne University, and artistic director of the Mustard Seed Theatre in St. Louis. This is her first directing assignment at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.

The second play in the line-up, Henry V, the stirring "once more unto the breach" history play, wherein (spoiler alert) the same Falstaff we saw in Merry Wives kicks the bucket. Off-stage, though. Henry V was last staged here in 2007. This time, the immensely talented Karen Kessler, who directed the only production of The Taming of the Shrew I ever liked, set in 1950s Little Italy, will be at the helm of Henry V.  It's set to open one week after Merry Wives, on July 12, also at the theater at Ewing Cultural Center.

And the third play, which will be performed on campus at the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts, bows on July 19. This one will be one of the most popular plays of 2017, Shakespeare in Love, adapted by Lee Hall from the screenplay of the Oscar-winning film by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. It will be directed by Marti Lyons, another IWU alum and another in-demand director with credits ranging from Lookingglass and Chicago Shakespeare in the Windy City to Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays. Shakespeare in Love premiered on stage in London in 2014. Its North American premiere took place last year at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and it's been going gangbusters across the United States ever since.

In addition to the staggered start indicated above, Illinois Shakes' managing director William Prenevost announced that changes are in the works across the ticketing side of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. Subscription choices, seating levels and prices are getting a makeover, online ordering will be added, and the special perks that used to come with Platinum Plus tickets will now be offered to Illinois Shakespeare Festival Society members, as the Platinum Plus level of tickets is phased into plain old Platinum. All the details will be unveiled on the Illinois Shakes website as we get closer to the summer season.

SWEENEY TODD Brings His Barbery to Eureka College

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again...

Stephen Sondheim's lyrics for the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street explain most of the show right off the top. There it is, the story of a barber who seeks razor-sharp revenge on those who wronged him in the past.

And what if none of their souls were saved? 
They went to their maker impeccably shaved.

Dark humor, murder and mayhem, the most clever and sardonic of lyrics, all sung to Sondheim's terrific score, with Hugh Wheeler's book and Sondheim's songs bringing in meat pies made of people, an operatic barbering contest, a depraved and evil judge, an innocent ward sent to the booby hatch, and 19th century London characterized as a hole in the world like a great black pit.

Isabella Anderson, a student at Eureka College, will be directing this dark, delightful musical for four performances in Pritchard Theater on the campus at Eureka College starting tonight. Performances begin at 7 pm November 1, 2, 3 and 4, with no set ticket price. Instead, it's "Pay What You Decide." To reserve tickets, you can email or call 309-467-6363 to reach the ticket office.

For more information on Sondheim and Wheeler's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Streetclick here. Note that the stage musical is not the same as the watered-down, blood-drenched film version from 2007 starring Johnny Depp. The real Sweeney Todd, with all its music intact and people who can actually perform the songs the way they were intended, is much, much, much, much, much better. Like night and day better.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Six-Week Film School Goes HUGO on November 1

Back in 2012, I called Hugo, director Martin Scorsese's movie adaptation of a children's book, the best movie of the year. I said then that I didn't consider myself a big Scorsese fan, but Hugo was a departure for him. If Scorsese is known for anything, it has to be gangsters, fisticuffs, and manly men grappling with their inner manliness.

But not Hugo. Instead, it's about the fantasy and sorcery of the movies, with a little mechanical magic thrown in for good measure. It's a beautiful film, one I called "a sweet, nostalgic look at film pioneer Georges Méliès" as it centers on a topic that's important to Scorsese -- film preservation -- "inside a narrative that feels wistful, involving and personally affecting all at once."

Professor William McBride has included Hugo as part of this fall's six-week film school done in conjunction with the Normal Theater. Previous topics have included film noir and the movies of Alfred Hitchcock, but this time he's gone for a sextet of Martin Scorsese movies, starting with Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and moving through Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ and Gangs of New York before getting to Hugo tomorrow night. The last film in the series, Silence, will be screened next week on November 8.

Much as I stereotyped him in my opening paragraph, you can see from that list just how expansive Scorsese's oeuvre is. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, from 1974, centered on a widow, played by Ellen Burstyn in an Oscar-winning performance, trying to create a new life for herself, including a romance with Kris Kristofferson and his beard. And, yes, it spawned the Alice TV show. That look at the ordinary life of an ordinary woman couldn't be more different from the scary, big-city violence escalating in Taxi Driver, from 1976, or the The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese's controversial 1988 religious epic, or Gangs of New York, a 2002 look at the bloodshed that ran in the streets of Manhattan's Five Points district in the mid-19th century. In contrast to each of the above, Hugo is set in Paris in the 1930s, with an orphan who lives in a railway station as its protagonist. And Silence, released just last year, goes back to the 1600s, once again focusing on religion and morality, but sending its Jesuit priests from Portugal to Japan in a clash of cultures.

I've picked Hugo week to spotlight, even though the six-week film school is well underway, because its beauty and magic speak to me and my movie-loving heart, but one thing that should be most interesting about McBride's talk is just how this sweet little Parisian trifle fits into Scorsese's career. Does it fit? Cinematically, thematically, any way whatsoever? I'm sure McBride will lots to say on that subject.

All of the movies and the post-show discussions are free in McBride's six-week film school, with a short introduction at 7 pm, just before the show starts.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Qui Nguyen's SHE KILLS MONSTERS Flies High Tonight at Illinois State

Yes, there is such a thing as "geek theatre," and playwright Qui Nguyen is one of its bright lights. Note that on his own site, he's chosen to refer to himself as "Playwriter, Screenwriter, Geek!" And it appears in a font that looks like it came right out of a comic book.

As co-artistic director and co-founder of Vampire Cowboys, a New York theater company often credited for creating the concept of geek theatre, Nguyen has worked to show that theaters can be a perfect venue for fans of comic books, video and role-playing games, science fiction and fantasy, and, in general, people who understand and identify with underdogs and outsiders.

Although Nguyen won the 2015 Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award for Vietgone, a more autobiographic piece, his 2011 play She Kills Monsters falls squarely in the geek theatre category, sending a woman named Agnes head over heels into the world of Dungeons and Dragons in an attempt to understand her younger sister Tilly's death. It's been described as "a high-octane dramatic comedy laden with homicidal fairies, nasty ogres, and 90s pop culture" and "a heart-pounding homage to the geek and warrior within us all."

Director Paul Dennhardt brings She Kills Monsters to the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts starting tonight, with performances running through Saturday, November 4. Dennhardt is a professor of theatre at ISU as well as an expert in stage combat and movement and a perfect choice for a play filled with swords and battles on an epic scale.

To create the fantastic world of the play, Dennhardt is working with ISU colleagues John Stark, the scenic designer tasked with putting this imaginary world on stage, Michael Vetere, a puppet-master who can create dragons out of whole cloth, and costume designer Amanda Vander Byl to help bring life to the characters of She Kills Monsters, both real and imaginary. Dennhardt has also enlisted Vertigo Rigging Company to make his warriors fly high (literally).

For ISU, Johanna Kerber will play Agnes, with Spencer Brady as her little sister Tilly. Actors Jacob Artner, Autumn Egger, Josh Harris, Lauren Hickle, Kayla Jones, Angie Milton, Becky Murphy, Tyler Szarabajka, Chloe Szot and Jack Van Boven were cast to fill out both Dungeons and the real world with heroes and villains.

For information about upcoming performances of She Kills Monsters, click here or here.The show's Facebook page also has ticket information.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

FAULT LINES and the Dark Comedy in Disaster Relief Tomorrow at IWU

Playwright Ali Taylor is an up-and-comer in England and Scotland, but not so much performed in the United States. When his play Fault Lines opens tomorrow night at Illinois Wesleyan University's Lab Theatre, it will be the first time we've seen Ali Taylor's work hereabouts.

Taylor's voice is fresh, irreverent and funny, even as he tackles big, tough subjects like homelessness in his play Cathy, the desperation and anxiety of teenagers adrift in the world in Cotton Wool and Overspill, and the commercialization and competition involved in running an organization supposedly devoted to humanitarian aid in Fault Lines, which premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in London in 2013.

There are only four characters in Fault Lines, and they all work for Disaster Relief, a group that sees Oxfam, the real-life international aid group, as its biggest rival. The play takes place the morning after Disaster Relief's blow-out Christmas party, when Abi and Nick wake up in a tent pitched in the middle of the office. Their Christmas party antics -- and too much alcohol -- sent them into the tent for a little sexual revelry last night that they are now finding awkward to handle. But their Morning After is interrupted by an intern, Ryan, who announces there's been a new disaster -- a massive earthquake in Pakistan -- that Disaster Relief will have to address. They'll need to act quickly to get the jump on Oxfam and get the best press. Oh, and Pat, an older, more uptight member of the Disaster Relief staff, is arriving any minute, upping the pressure to get things done NOW.

There is competition between Abi and Nick to be the one who locates supplies for Pakistan first, as well as to outwit and outmaneuver Oxfam, and to meet the super-quick deadline Pat gives them. But nothing is as clear-cut as it seems when being No. 1 is more important than actually helping anyone. As the play's press materials put it, Fault Lines is "a razor-sharp new comedy that exposes the dilemmas of working in charity today and asks whether doing good is always the same as being good."

Considering just how many national and international disasters keep knocking us off our pins and how we judge the response from organizations like the fictional Disaster Relief, Fault Lines couldn't possibly be any more timely.

For Illinois Wesleyan's School of Theatre Arts, department head Tom Quinn directs a cast that includes Morgan McCane as Abi, Braden Tanner as Nick, Emily Strub as Pat, and Andrea Froehlke as Ryan.

Fault Lines plays for only three performances in the E. Melba Kirkpatrick Lab Theatre, from October 27 to 28, with all performances at 8 pm. Tickets for Lab Theatre shows are $3 for the general public and $2 for students. Visit this page or call the IWU box office at 309-556-3232 for more information.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Powerful OEDIPUS Packs a Punch at ISU

Greek tragedies can be tough to bring to life for modern audiences, but playwright Ellen McLaughlin* has a real knack for adapting classical works into something that seems fresh and new. She's really good at making old stories like the The Trojan Women or the miserable history of the House of Atreus seem newly dramatic and alive.

That is also true of her Oedipus, which Illinois State University's School of Theatre and Dance is performing in Westhoff Theatre in repertory with All's Well That Ends Well through October 28. McLaughlin's version of Sophocles' Oedipus is poetic and lively, with vivid images and evocative ideas. This isn't easy stuff, not when the central character is a doomed man, prophesied at birth to kill his father and marry his mother, and his tragedy entails a lot of back story to get to the devastating reality of how the prophecy plays out. A look at the bloody poster for ISU's production (above left) should make it clear that Oedipus himself will not emerge unscathed.

For Illinois State, director Kristin L. Schoenback has chosen to fuel her Greek chorus with music, composed and directed by Cristian Larios. There are echoes of spirituals, Appalachian ballads and folk songs and maybe even Gregorian chants in Larios's haunting music, delivered with emotion and truth by the ten members of the chorus. Tori DeLaney, Sarah Ford, Rondale Gray, Malachi M. Hurndon, Owen McGee, Will Olsen, Simran Sachdev, Leah Soderstrom, Al Vitucci and Bobby Voss are just as good with the spoken parts they're given as they are with the sung sections, making this one Oedipus where the Greek chorus is a great deal more than an afterthought or an exclamation point. They're right at the heart of this Oedipus and they're terrific.

The chorus is part of an attention to detail here that speaks well of Schoenback as a director; both her principal and supporting players are excellent as they navigate the murky waters of this tragedy.

Grant Brown, who plays Oedipus, is strong and passionate, even when he is called upon to show us Oedipus's weaknesses, and Sarah Seidler is as lovely and tragic as she needs to be as Jocasta, Oedipus's mother as well as his wife. She has one long monologue that works beautifully, as Seidler finds moments of softness and quiet to contrast the heavy weight of Jocasta's pain.

Troy Schaeflin is polished and skillful as Creon, the advisor Oedipus willfully blames for his woes, while Deanna Stewart brings blind prophet Tiresias to life with righteous anger, Matt Byrne finds all the layers and humanity in a messenger bringing good and bad news, and Madison Gillis is properly conflicted as a shepherd with more answers than she really wants to share.

Schoenback's overall idea for her production is on target throughout, as she brings Oedipus straight into today, with members of the chorus as ordinary street people you might see anywhere. Kim Lartz's scenic design contributes to that concept, showing us that Thebes is a city in trouble, where its once pristine pillars are now stained with mold and mildew as well as graffiti, while Nicole Kippen's costumes delineate the difference between haves and have-nots. We see immediately that Oedipus and his circle are turned out in crisp, stylish clothing, perfectly laundered and pressed, in contrast to the shabby sweats and layers of gray his poor subjects wear. 

This is a sharp, pointed Oedipus, with words that hit close to home for America today.
If this is what you know of mercy, may you never be in need of it. Yours is a terrible nature, Brother. I would not have it for the world. Your great head is a locked box where you nurture grievance and shadow, startled by the echoes of your own frantic whispers coming back to you. Your reckless fury crackles like lightning through all your dark rooms. No, I don’t envy you, and never did, for all your power.
It's not hard to replace "Brother" with "Mr. President" or "Senator," is it?

The cast and crew of this production is
have joined together with the International Rescue Committee in an effort to raise funds "for the lost and suffering in our world." If you are interested in helping out, you can visit the International Rescue Committee’s Crowdrise page to donate to their campaign.

*McLauglin is an actor, writer and teacher as well as a playwright. As an actor, she originated the role of the Angel in Tony Kushner's Angels in America.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

It's TRAVESTIES Time Tonight at U of I

Tom Stoppard's Travesties is a whirl, even a whirligig, envisioning what might have happened if Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara had run into each other while they were all in Zurich in 1917. They really were all in Zurich, but this fantasic meet-up in a library is pure Stoppard.

Stoppard didn't choose Zurich in 1917 just because they were all there, but because it was a seminal moment for each of them. Lenin was headed for revolution, Joyce was in the midst of writing Ulysses and Tzara was getting Dada off the ground. It's no surprise a play about their intersection would involve high-flying wordplay and razzmatazz to get at issues of politics, art, revolution, freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Travesties isn't just about Lenin, Joyce and Tzara, however. There's another man, someone named Henry Carr, who forms the center of the play. Carr was a real person, also in Zurich in 1917, and he really did play a role in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by James Joyce. And after some disputes arose in that production, Carr and Joyce traded lawsuits.

In Stoppard's play, Carr is confused and fuzzy, moving back and forth between his older years and his memory of 1917. Carr's Swiss-cheese memories give the play its structure, as the characters throw limericks, sonnets and even a taste of vaudeville. ("Positively, Mr. Gallagher!" becomes "Positively, Gwendolen!" but it's vaudeville just the same) into the mix. Tom Hollander, who plays Carr in the current British production which will be transferring to Broadway next year, described the Travesties experience as being "bombarded by a glitter ball of different thoughts."

Director Laura Hackman brings Travesties to the Colwell Playhouse at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana with Equity actor Christopher Sheard in the role of Henry Carr. Sheard is an alum of the University of Illinois theatre MFA program, and he brings a maturity to the cast that should work well for Old Carr and Young Carr.

Sheard will be joined by MFA actors Jessica Kadish as Gwendolen and Mark Tyler Miller as Joyce and undergrads Kevin Blair as Tzara, Katelin Dirr as Cecily, Diana Gardner as Nadya, Jordan Gleaves as Bennett and Patrick Weber as Lenin.

Travesties opens tonight with a 7:30 pm performance and runs through October 29. For performance information or to order tickets, click here. Illinois Theatre also makes the programs for its events available online, and if you want to see the director's or dramaturg's notes or read actor and design team bios, that's all right here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

LITTLE WOMEN the Musical Opens Tomorrow at Bradley

Bradley University Theatre opens its fall season tomorrow night at 7:30 pm with the Broadway musical version of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott's classic story that has remained popular (especially with young female readers) since the two volumes were first published at the end of the 1860s. The show will run through October 29 at the Hartmann Center for the Performing Arts in Peoria.

You may be aware of various dramatizations of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women novels, with play versions on Broadway as early as 1913, and movies ranging from the 1933 film starring Katharine Hepburn to one with June Allyson in 1949 and another with Winona Ryder in 1994. All of the actresses mentioned here played the role of Jo March, the writer at the center of Alcott's story. When Little Women begins, Jo and her three sisters are living in Massachusetts during the Civil War, with their father away in the war and their mother, called Marmee, attempting to hold the household together. Jo writes dramas (with the accent on drama) to keep her sister entertained, while a neighbor boy named Laurie joins in. As time passes, Jo grows and changes, as do her and her sisters' circumstances

The musical version features a score by Jason Howland (music) and Mindi Dickstein (lyrics), with book by Allan Knee. It ran on Broadway for 137 performances in 2004 and 2005, earning a Tony nomination for leading actress Sutton Foster along with three Drama Desk nominations.

For Bradley, Cassy Lillwitz will play Jo, with Rebekah Farr, Noelle Mefford and Leslie Allen as her sisters Beth, Meg and Amy. Derek Baunach will play Laurie and Trevor Baty will play Professor Bhaer, a professor Jo meets when she moves to New York.

This Little Women is directed by guest director Chad Bradford, with Chad Lowell designing the set and lights, Becki Arnold designing costumes and Michelle Rice designing the sound.

Click here for more information or call 309-677-2650 for tickets. You can also see snippets of the Broadway show here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

ALL'S WELL Goes Very Well at ISU

All's Well That Ends Well is not one of Shakespeare's most beloved or most frequently performed plays. While Midsummers and Macbeths come and go, it's not as easy to find an All's Well. In fact, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival has only done it twice, in 1988 and 1997, and you have to go back to the 1999-2000 season to find it at Chicago Shakes.

The reason why All's Well isn't at the top of the charts is probably because its plot is a bit wobbly and some of its major characters are more than a bit limp. That's especially true of Bertram, who isn't much of a hero as we see him, even if he is in the eyes of heroine Helena, who yearns for him mightily. In contrast, Helena is plucky, smart and virtuous. She may be smitten with Bertram, which is decidedly a weakness, but she also knows what she wants and isn't afraid to get it, and she can travel by herself, even through war-torn areas, come up with a fairly crazy (but successful) plan to nab the man she wants, and cure the King of France from a mystery illness without breaking a sweat. Helena is, in short, a pretty cool girl.

But Bertram... Why is she so enamored of Bertram? He really doesn't like her, he's rude and immature, he comes on strong when he sees a virgin he wants to score with, and he hangs out with (and listens to) a lowlife braggart and coward that everyone else sees through. That would be Parolles, one of Shakespeare's most tiresome characters.

For Illinois State University's School of Theatre and Dance, MFA director Enrico Spada looks to solve some of the problems with Bertram (played by Robert Hunter Bry) and Parolles (played by Daniel Balsamo) by setting the play in mid-18th century France, at a time when fashion was about excessive feathers and frippery and philosophers were spinning new ideas about personal liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That works well to explain why Bertram is a self-absorbed twit -- he is chafing at having to do what people in charge want him to and expressing his idea of freedom, after all -- and makes Parolles' appearance as a painted, powdered popinjay right on the money.

As played by Paige Brantley, Helena is a headstrong, forthright and no one's idea of a girly girl. Because Bertram is snobby and silly, it also makes perfect sense that she does not represent the girl of his dreams. At times, Bry's version of Bertram seems distant and oblivious to what's going on around him, and that works, too.

Others of note in the cast include Christian Friedan and Jordan Figueroa as a pair of French brothers who conspire against Parolles, and Maggie Joyce, Katie MacLauchlan, Kelly Gross and Rachel Hall as a quartet of Florentine ladies who conspire against Bertram.

There are some lovely stage pictures here, framed and supported by Kim Lartz's elegant scenic design, which makes the most of Westhoff Theatre. Erica Maholmes' lighting design adds texture and mood, while Megan Wood's costume designs are fantastic. Sound designer Aaron Paolucci also makes a strong contribution with music that underscores the play's themes and Spada's choice of setting.

Dances added as a prologue and postscript, choreographed by Madeline Cleveland, are another welcome feature of this production.

Although I'm not sure All's Well That Ends Well will ever end up as anybody's favorite Shakespeare, this production is so pretty and Brantley is so appealing that it certainly makes an argument in its favor.

All's Well That Ends Well runs in repertory through October 28 at ISU's Westhoff Theatre. For more information, click here.