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.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

CRAZY EX Is Crazier Than Ever in Season 3

She's back and crazier than ever. Also ex-er than ever.

When we last saw Rebecca Bunch, the title character in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, she had just been dumped at the altar. Her crush of crushes, Josh Chan, decided at the very last minute to become a priest rather than marry her. Ouch. But our crazy girl, played by the show's producer/writer/creator Rachel Bloom, was not going to take that lying down. Well, actually she was, but that comes later.

When we pick up Season 3 of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, still on the CW but now moved to Fridays, Rebecca is AWOL in the wake of the wedding that wasn't, and her friends and co-workers are wondering what happened to her. They get together for a musical number where they are dressed like the village folk in a Disney flick like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast and sing, "Where's Rebecca Bunch?" At the end of the number, Rebecca sings, too, from her bed (lying down No. 1), ultimately deciding to "Fight back!" As part of her plan to go from a victim to a "woman scorned," she's buying dark nail polish and hair dye and renting movies like Fatal Attraction.

Her best friend Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) also has a plan, but hers involves lie detector tests and sign-in sheets to make sure she can trust her husband, who had an affair last season. And Rebecca's sweet but dim boss at the law firm, Darryl Whitefeather (Pete Gardner) is trying to convince his boyfriend White Josh (David Hull) that the two should raise a baby together, while White Josh is focused on a new venture with power bars made of ants.

In the meantime, Rebecca does show up at the office, with darker hair and a hot white dress, à la Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. She also gets together with the rest of her friend squad (deadpan neighbor Heather, played by Vella Lovell, and another of Josh's exes, perfect Valencia, played by Gabrielle Ruiz), cluing them in on her plan to get revenge. Since it involves poop cupcakes, they nix it quickly, so she turns to a fake porno/sex tape idea and starts auditioning actors to find a Josh Chan stand-in to have fake-sex with. That also strikes her friends as wrong wrong wrong, but they pretend to go along for awhile, until Rachel finds a perfect Josh replica (also played by Vincent Rodriguez III, presumably to give him something to do in the otherwise Josh-less episode). When Rachel gets naked with every intention to really get it on in front of the cameras, Paula steps up and shuts it down.

And then we get a slam-bang 80s girl-group number called "Let's Generalize About Men," with the Girl Squad in bright-colored power suits, with short skirts, big earrings and giant shoulder pads, as they bash the male half of the population in the catchiest possible way. Except for gay men. They are specifically excepted from the bash. It's pretty nifty all around, with the self-aware, snarky, fizzy-pop edge this show does so well.

By the end of the episode, White Josh and Darryl have sorted out their issues, Paula has reached a rapprochement with her husband, and the Girl Squad has come up with a much better plot for revenge wherein Rebecca takes Josh to court. But Rebecca... Yeah, she's still firmly ensconced in Crazyville, right back in the bathroom with the feces-laced cupcakes.

What's next? "To Josh, With Love" airs next Friday, and since that's what Rebecca wrote on the lid of the container for her meadow muffins, presumably there will be some fallout from her crappy revenge idea.

I admit I pretty much hate scatalogical humor, so I'm hoping there isn't much on that score, and we jump right to what's happening with Josh in his ill-advised attempt to become a priest.

"To Josh, With Love" is set for Friday October 20 at 7 pm Central time on the CW.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Indiana Rep's CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME


At its best, theater bridges the gaps in our attempts to communicate. It offers a view of the world we might not see otherwise, a view through others' eyes and ears. It is, in other words, a perfect vehicle for Mark Haddon's best-selling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which set out to accomplish that in written form.

To tell his story, Haddon used a first-person narrator named Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old on the autism spectrum, as he tries to navigate a world he has difficulty understanding. Some things make perfect sense -- math, astronomy, geography -- while more ambiguous things like facial expressions or social niceties are baffling. When Christopher's neighbor's dog is killed, he is determined to figure out who did it, setting him on a journey of detection that uncovers more than just one mystery.

Playwright Simon Stephens adapted Curious Incident for the stage, with director Marianne Elliott (War Horse, the recent Angels in America at the National Theatre) and designer Bunny Christie collaborating to find a way to take a stage audience inside Christopher's head, to see events from his perspective. Their vision involved Christie's set design, aggressive lighting and sound by designers Paule Constable, Ian Dickinson and Adrian Sutton, and extensive ensemble work by the entire company of actors to give us a visual picture of the sensations Christopher experiences.

Technically, it was a huge show in London and on Broadway, piling up Olivier and Tony Awards. Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis is one of the few regional theaters so far to get a crack at Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and its technological challenges. It's one thing to create Christopher's world with every possible bell and whistle at your disposal, but how do you make it work with a smaller company like Indiana Repertory?

The answer for Indiana Rep director Risa Brainin and scenic designer Russell Metheny was to scale it back -- no flashy escalator, no magical drawers sliding out of the woodwork -- while maintaining the focus and the intensity of the play. Michael Klaers' lighting and Todd Mack Reischman's sound add layers of stimulus and sensation to ramp up the tension, and Brainin's staging showcases the work of movement coordinator Mariel Greenlee to maximize the space and the interactions among characters.

The show's biggest asset, however, is Mickey Rowe, the first actor with autism given the opportunity to play Christopher. Rowe carries the action from beginning to end, tapping into the character's sweetness and intelligence as well as his conflicted emotions. He also fills out the physicality of the role beautifully, whether it's a small, repetitive hand motion, carrying a pet carrier on his toe, pedaling a unicycle or stretching out in what seems like an impossible balancing act on a chair. There is a joy in Rowe's performance that celebrates Christopher and his differences even as it expresses his humanity and vulnerability.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a special play, given a thoughtful and emotionally expansive production at Indiana Rep. If you are in the mood for a trip to Indianapolis, this Curious Incident is well worth your time. Performances continue through October 14 at the historic Indiana Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.

Note for Central Illinois Theatregoers: Eric Parks, an MFA acting alum from the University of Illinois, is a member of the ensemble in this production.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Juggling Your Dates in October

There's a lot on the calendar in October and I thought a handy reference list might be in order, for me as well as anybody else scrambling to juggle all these dates. Let's get this October party started...


Tuesday, October 3:
  • An all-female All the King's Men from Illinois Theatre continues at Krannert Center at the University of Illinois in the Studio Theatre at 7:30 pm. Through October 8.
  • Illinois Wesleyan University's production of Dancing at Lughnasa opens with an 8 pm performance. Through October 8.

Wednesday, October 4:
  • Professor Bill McBride brings Taxi Driver to the Normal Theater as part of a new Six Week Film School centered on the films of Martin Scorsese.

Thursday, October 5:
  • Prairie Fire Theatre offers a sneak peek at its upcoming production of Starting Here, Starting Now from 5 to 8 pm during a special event at Satio Wine Bar in downtown Bloomington.
  • Waiting for Godot begins at 7 pm from the TwinCitySquared company at Champaign's SoDo Theatre.
  • Parkland Theatre's production of The Crucible continues with a 7:30 pm performance. Through October 8. 
  • The Station Theatre opens its fall season with Title and Deed, starting at 8 pm. Through October 21.


Friday, October 6:
  • Arts@ICC continues its production of Steve Martin's play The Underpants at 7:30 pm. Through October 8.
  • Sticky in the Sticks and their pop-up bar plays return to Firehouse Pizza & Pub in Normal with an 8 pm performance.
  • The new film Victoria and Abdul comes to the Art Theater in Champaign, with screenings at 5 and 7:30 pm. Through October 12.

Saturday, October 7:
  • Illinois Voices Theatre's history walk continues at Evergreen Cemetery. Through October 8.


Friday, October 13:

Thursday, October 19:


Friday, October 20:
  • Prairie Fire Theatre offers Starting Here, Starting Now in the Young Lounge in IWU's Memorial Center, starting at 7:30 pm. Through October 21.

Wednesday, October 25:
  • Young at Heartland's Fall Showcase begins at 7:30 pm at Heartland Theatre. Second showcase is at 2 pm on October 27 at the Normal Public Library.

Thursday, October 26:


Friday, October 27:
  • The ISU School of Theatre and Dance production of She Kills Monsters begins its run at the ISU Center for the Performing Arts at 7:30 pm. Through November 4.
  • Fault Lines opens at 8 pm in IWU's Lab Theatre. Through October 29.

Saturday, October 28:
  • The newly redefined Illinois Voices Theatre holds an open house from 3 to 5 pm at the First Christian Church of Bloomington.

And that's what I have so far. Check back for additions as we proceed through October.