Thursday, April 12, 2018

Legendary BALM IN GILEAD Opens Tomorrow at ISU

Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead occupies a special place in American theater history. It was Wilson's first full-length play, establishing him as a major voice in the 60s off-off-Broadway movement at  La Mama and marking a seminal point in off-off-Broadway history. It also created a major moment for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre when company member John Malkovich directed a production of the play in 1980, putting a national spotlight on Steppenwolf and actors like Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney, Glenne Headly, Jeff Perry, Joan Allen, John Mahoney and especially Laurie Metcalf, whose amazing monologue lit up the stage.

Since most of Steppenwolf's ensemble came from Illinois State University, a new production at the ISU Center for the Performing Arts makes perfect sense. It's a nod to ISU theater history, to some of its most notable alumni, and to the kind of rock-and-roll theatrical style that drove those alums into the national consciousness.

John Tovar directs the ISU Balm in Gilead that opens tomorrow night at 7:30 pm, with a large cast that includes Angie Milton as Darlene, a wounded, naive newcomer to the grungy all-night diner in Manhattan where the action is set; Steve Carr as Joe, a small-time drug dealer with a big problem and a big debt; Troy Schaeflein as Dopey, a junkie and something of a narrator; Tori DeLaney as Fick, a down-and-out addict; Betsy Diller as Ann, a former teacher turned street hooker; and Jack VanBoven, Dylan Dewitt and AnneMarie Owens as the cafe's manager, cook and server. Tino Avila, Abbie Brenner, Parker Carbine, Rashun Carter, Krystina Coyne, Taylor Eaves, Christian Frieden, Jeremy Gavin, Rondale Gray, Mikey Hendrickson, Malachi Hurndon, Will Olsen, Sarah Seidler, Clare Ellen Supplitt, Al Vitucci, Bobby Voss and Asa Wallace round out the ensemble as assorted users, pushers, hustlers, drunks, bad guys and whores who hang out there, with Katie Capp, Rachel Katz and Josephine O'Shaughnessy as a trio of rowdy children who make a scary Halloween run through the disarray. 

Balm in Gilead runs at the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts from April 13 to 21, with evening performances at 7:30 pm and a matinee on April 15th at 2 pm. For more details or to reserve tickets, contact the CPA box office at 309-438-2535 between the hours of 11 am and 5 pm on weekdays. You may also purchase tickets online at Ticketmaster.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Gunderson and THE BOOK OF WILL Win Top Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award

Over the weekend, the American Theatre Critics Association announced the 2018 winners of the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Awards, which shine a spotlight (and reward) playwrights for professionally produced work premiering outside New York City. With the top award and two citations, the Steinberg/ATCA Awards give out a total of $40,00 each year, making the awards the largest national new play program of its kind. Every year, they are announced on the Saturday of the last weekend of Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays.


Playwright Lauren Gunderson continued what has been a banner year, as she was the recipient of the the top award of $25,000 and a commemorative plaque for her play The Book of Will, which premiered at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts last year. Gunderson's scenario takes place after the death of Shakespeare, when two of his friends--Henry Condell and John Heminges--attempt to preserve his plays for posterity. As the Denver Center frames it, "the two actors are determined to compile the first Folio and preserve the words that shaped their lives. They’ll just have to borrow, beg and band together to get it done. Lauren Gunderson weaves a hilarious and heartfelt story inspired by the true story of Shakespeare’s First Folio."

In a world with so many Shakespeare festivals eager to produce work that involves him* and a playwright with a good deal of buzz right now, it seems likely you will see The Book of Will somewhere near you very soon. The Book of Will has been published by Dramatists Play Service.

Molly Smith Metzler's Cry It Out, an insightful look at how new motherhood affects three very different women (and one man), took a $7500 cash prize, along with Ike Holter's The Wolf at the end of the Block, a searing drama about a crime outside a boarded-up Chicago bar that underlines the jagged gulf between people of color and the police. Cry It Out premiered at last year's Humana Festival, while The Wolf at the End of the Block was presented by Teatro Vista at Victory Gardens Theater. You can find Cry It Out at Dramatic Publishing, while The Wolf at the End of the Block is scheduled to be published by Northwestern University Press along with Holter's entire seven-play Chicago cycle.


The other finalists were Linda Vista and The Minutes, both by Tracy Letts, and Objects in the Mirror by Charles Smith.

At the same event at the Humana Festival, Chelsea Marcantel's Airness, a breezy and energetic look at an air guitar competition, was named this year's winner of the M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award recognizing an emerging playwright.

*For recent work involving Shakespeare as a person, see: Lee Hall's Shakespeare in Love, coming to the Illinois Shakespeare Festival this year, after productions in London, the Stratford Festival in Canada, Chicago, etc.; Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex, a smash at Illinois Shakes in 2014 after it, too, played at the Stratford Festival and Chicago Shakes; and Bill Cain's Equivocation, a previous Steinberg/ATCA winner from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Score One for the Girls: THE WOLVES at the Goodman's Owen Theatre


Against all kinds of obstacles, women in theater have thrown down the gauntlet on more than one front. Freedom from harassment, decent access to directing, design and stage management jobs, consideration for women playwrights and actors when artistic directors are choosing their seasons... It's all on the table. And it only makes sense. If you look around when you go to the theater, you already know that audiences are more likely to be made up of women. But how have theaters responded? Is anything getting better? From my perspective, the answer is yes and no. Locally, we've seen some progress*, a continuation of good work**, and a decided retreat into Same Old Same Old White Guy Theater***. But Chicago's Goodman Theatre has taken the ball and run with it, with programming like Sarah DeLappe's The Wolves, directed by Vanessa Stalling, who earned her MFA in directing at Illinois State University.

The Wolves is a wonderful choice, an inside look at a team of girls playing soccer and what's important to them. Stalling is the perfect director for it, too, with her emphasis on the physical side of theater, and appreciation for women on stage who can "look strong, be aggressive or take up space." That is exactly what these soccer players do as they run through practice, joke around, pick at issues they may not exactly understand, vie for playing time, and struggle with things like friendship, teamwork, sexuality, parents and mortality. None of it is revolutionary, just new, because somebody is finally listening in to teenage girls who find joy in strength and competition, pushing and kicking their way in a world that isn't all that welcoming.

DeLappe's script uses overlapping, fragmented dialogue that kicks around in a much less disciplined fashion than the drills the girls are running, veering from global atrocities to yogurt, yurts, tampons and maxi pads with breathless speed. Both the dialogue and the action are choreographed and tricky, but Stalling keeps her actors on their toes throughout the play and together, they drive the narrative perfectly. Whether or not any of these women actually played soccer during their high school years, they've brought their skills up to a level that reads like the real thing. Their stamina and focus are amazing.

As #46, Erin O'Shea stands out both with her soccer prowess as well as her acting, delivering emotional depth as an outsider who can't quite figure out the social cues that come so easily to her teammates. ISU grad Cydney Moody is a delight as #8, the more naïve one who falls apart when she finds out that the national tournament will be in Tulsa instead of Orlando, while Sarah Price makes smart girl #11 a real treat. I also enjoyed Isa Arciniegas as the no-nonsense captain of the team, Taylor Blim as a sweet girl who shows signs of an eating disorder, Angela Alise as the stressed-out goalie, Mary Tilden as a goofball whose jokes don't exactly land, and Aurora Real De Asua and Natalie Joyce as the most socially advanced of the bunch. Meighan Gerachis arrives late in the game, but she makes quite an impact with a heartbreaker of a monologue.

The Wolves is staged in the round (or rectangle) in the Goodman's Owen Theatre, with the audience up close to the action. Set Designer Collette Pollard has created a simple but effective space lined with artificial turf and surrounded by netting that allows for in-your-face athletics. Mikhail Fiksel's sound design and Keith Parham's lighting design add a blast of energy, as well.

Because it has proved so popular, The Wolves has been extended past its original end date. That means you can still see it through March 18 if you can get a ticket.

THE WOLVES
By Sarah DeLappe

The Owen Theatre at the Goodman Theatre
February 9 to March 18, 2018

Directed by Vanessa Stalling
Set design by Collette Pollard
Costume design by Noël Huntzinger
Lighting design by Keith Parham
Original music and sound design by Mikhail Fiksel
Dramaturgy by Kristin Idasak

Production Stage Manager: Nikki Blue
Soccer Skill Building Coach: Katie Berkopec

Cast: Angela Alise, Isa Arciniegas, Taylor Blim, Aurora Real De Asua, Meighan Gerachis, Natalie Joyce, Cydney Moody, Erin O'Shea, Sarah Price and Mary Tilden


* Illinois State University has done excellent work in spotlighting plays by women, people of color and from authors outside the United States, in its last two seasons. In Urbana, the Station Theatre is devoting most of its current season to women playwrights and women directors.

** New Route Theater in Bloomington-Normal continues its mission of giving a voice to underrepresented communities and ethnically and culturally diverse playwrights. 

*** Heartland Theatre has just announced a new mainstage season that will be 100% white male voices, after two seasons with paltry representation (a play by Anna Zeigler in 2017 and book and lyrics by Tina Landau in this year's Floyd Collins are the sole contributions of women) and more than double the number of roles available to men over those seasons.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

American Theatre Critics Announce Steinberg/ATCA New Play Finalists


The American Theatre Critics Association has released the names of the six finalists for the 2018 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, which spotlights playwrights for professionally produced work premiering outside New York City. The Steinberg/ATCA Awards hand out $40,00 each year, making these awards the largest national new play program of its kind.

This year's finalists are The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson, Cry It Out by Molly Smith Metzler, Linda Vista by Tracy Letts, The Minutes by Tracy Letts, Objects in the Mirror by Charles Smith, and The Wolf at the End of the Block by Ike Holter. Chicago is strongly represented in this group, with two plays from Letts that premiered at Steppenwolf, Smith's play from the Goodman Theatre, and Holter's play, which was presented by Teatro Vista at Victory Gardens.

Here's how the ATCA committee describes the plays chosen:
The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson, about the efforts of Shakespeare's contemporaries to preserve his words after his death, "fires on all cylinders" according to one panelist. Said another, it "wrestles with big questions: Why we create and how we deal with death? What constitutes a legacy? And how a surpassing love for something bigger can make every sacrifice worth it." It's "all the more impressive given that we know how the story will end." "And it's funny — genuinely funny — in a way that feels contemporary and yet not cynical." The Book of Will had its world premiere at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

Cry It Out by Molly Smith Metzler focuses on the bonds and barriers between two new mothers across a backyard and across class differences. According to panel members, it is "heartbreakingly original in wrestling with issues of female friendship and class and privilege while still being a story about two people one quickly feels strongly about." "Their challenges come across as very real and accessible without being trivialized." Cry It Out premiered at the Humana Festival.

Linda Vista by Tracy Letts focuses on "a man-child who is lonely and wants to be loved — while remaining too immature to do the work involved in making that happen." With, according to a panelist, some of the "smartest, funniest dialogue of any play this year, it also features female roles exceptionally fresh and well crafted." "Letts runs it out of control and then brings it back," said another. It features, "smart observations on marriage, fatherhood, and aging" and, noted yet another, "It's like getting smacked with a metal ruler while someone's telling jokes." Linda Vista premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.

The Minutes, also by Tracy Letts, reads like "this is Grover's Corners and Winesburg, Ohio through the eyes of Shirley Jackson." It's "a very weird roller coaster ride" through an absurd town council meeting that leads to "a magnificent tribal reveal soaked in the saddest truth about humanity." "I could see where this would be an actor's and director's dream with a WOW finish." The Minutes also premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

Objects in the Mirror by Charles Smith "compellingly takes us into the mindset of the masses of refugees fleeing wars and other violence and their struggle against great odds to survive and escape." It's about both "the price of immigration, and the importance of identity, with a second act that feeds on the first act in clever ways but takes us in a new direction." "I was also moved," said one panelist, "by the identity crisis at the heart of the play—the hunger to reclaim a self and name that no longer belong to you." It conveys "a great deal about how worlds apart people can be, how different their ideas of how to help." Objects in the Mirror premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

The Wolf at the End of the Block by Ike Holter is, according to one panelist, "a play I can't get out of my head, from one of the most exciting emerging voices in American theater." It "melds gorgeous, often comedic dialogue into a very dark reality" in "a play that matters." Centered on a beating outside of a Chicago bar, it's "honest about how flawed the would-be heroes of the piece are — refreshing, given the amount of paint-by-numbers agitprop out there right now." Presented by Teatro Vista, The Wolf at the End of the Block premiered at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater.
These six finalists were selected from eligible scripts recommended by ATCA members from across the country.  To read about the history of the Steinberg/ATCA awards and see past winners, click here.

The top award of $25,000 and two citations of $7,500 each, plus commemorative plaques, will be presented April 7 at the 2018 Humana Festival of American Play at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Oscars, Year 90, Now One for the Books


In a year when some of the biggest Oscar drama happened on the red carpet, with lots of speculation that the major stars would be sidestepping E! network's Ryan Seacrest, things shaped up pretty well and pretty much as expected inside the 90th annual Academy Awards ceremony. Jimmy Kimmel was an affable host, the proceedings went along smoothly with no major gaffes, and there were undoubtedly a lot of ties for prizes at Oscar parties.

In the biggest categories, Guillermo del Toro and his Beauty and the Beast story, The Shape of Water,  emerged victorious, scooping up Best Picture and Best Director to go with awards for its score and production design.  

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won two of the big acting awards with Best Actress for Frances McDormand and Best Supporting Actor for Sam Rockwell, while first-time producer/director/screenwriter Jordan Peele walked away with the Best Original Screenplay trophy for Get Out and 89-year-old James Ivory became the oldest Oscar winner ever with his win for his adapted screenplay for Call Me By Your Name.

Adding a little more fuel to the fire that real (as opposed to fictional) characters are more likely to win awards, Gary Oldman won Best Actor as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour and Allison Janney added to her awards season sweep as Tonya Harding's horrible mother in I, Tonya.

Dunkirk won for its film and sound editing as well as sound mixing, while Blade Runner 2049 picked up awards for its cinematography and visual effects.

Disney/Pixar's Coco won as Best Animated Feature, with songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez winning with their sweet song "Remember Me" from that film. 

And here's your complete list of winners:

BEST PICTURE
Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


BEST DIRECTOR
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Jordan Peele, Get Out

BEST ACTOR
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

BEST ACTRESS
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Meryl Streep, The Post

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Allison Janney, I, Tonya Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green, Logan
James Ivory, Call Me by Your Name
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, The Disaster Artist
Aaron Sorkin, Molly’s Game
Virgil Williams and Dee Rees, Mudbound

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick
Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 
Jordan Peele, Get Out

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049
Bruno Delbonnel, Darkest Hour
Dan Laustsen, The Shape of Water
Rachel Morrison, Mudbound
Hoyte van Hoytema, Dunkirk

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
The Insult (Lebanon)
Loveless (Russia)
On Body and Soul (Hungary)
The Square (Sweden)

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
"Mighty River" from Mudbound, Mary J. Blige
"Mystery of Love" from Call Me by Your Name, Sufjan Stevens
"Remember Me" from Coco, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
"Stand Up for Something" from Marshall, Diane Warren and Common
"This Is Me" from The Greatest Showman, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Carter Burwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water
Jonny Greenwood, Phantom Thread
John Williams, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Hans Zimmer, Dunkirk

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
The Boss Baby
The Breadwinner
Coco
Ferdinand
Loving Vincent

BEST ANIMATED SHORT
Dear Basketball
Garden Party
Lou
Negative Space
Revolting Rhymes


BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Faces Places
Icarus
Last Men in Aleppo
Strong Island


BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Edith+Eddie;
Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405
Heroin(e)
Knife Skills
Traffic Stop

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT  
DeKalb Elementary 
The Eleven O’Clock 
My Nephew Emmett 
The Silent Child 
Watu Wote/All of Us

BEST FILM EDITING
Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, Baby Driver
Jon Gregory, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Tatiana S. Riegel, I, Tonya
Lee Smith, Dunkirk
Sidney Wolinsky, The Shape of Water

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett and Joel Whist, War for the Planet of the Apes
Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Chris Corbould and Neal Scanlan, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover and Gerd Nefzer, Blade Runner 2049
Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza and Mike Meinardus, Kong: Skull Island
Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner and Dan Sudick, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

BEST SOUND EDITING
Alex Gibson and Richard King, Dunkirk
Ren Klyce and Matthew Wood, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Mark Mangini and Theo Green, Blade Runner 2049
Nathan Robitaille and Nelson Ferreira, The Shape of Water Julian Slater, Baby Driver

BEST SOUND MIXING 
Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater and Tim Cavagin, Baby Driver
Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke and Brad Zoern, The Shape of Water
Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett and Doug Hephill, Blade Runner 2049
Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker and Gary A. Rizzo, Dunkirk
Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker and Michael Semanick, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Consolata Boyle, Victoria and Abdul
Mark Bridges, Phantom Thread
Jacqueline Durran, Beauty and the Beast
Jacqueline Durran, Darkest Hour
Luis Sequeira, The Shape of Water

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin and Shane Vieau, The Shape of Water
Nathan Crowley and Gary Fettis, Dunkirk
Dennis Gassner and Alessandra Querzola, Blade Runner 2049
Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, Beauty and the Beast
Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, Darkest Hour

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIR 
Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard, Victoria and Abdul
Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick, Darkest Hour
Arjen Tuiten, Wonder


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Opening Tonight: RHINOCEROS at IWU

Eugène Ionesco was really big in the 70s, when I came of age. My junior high theater teacher assigned two of his plays (The Lesson and The Bald Soprano) for a whole semester's worth of class work. I seem to recall Ionesco in my French textbook, including an image of a nose shaped like a circular stair. And I saw (and fell in love with) Rhinoceros when another high school used it for its contest play. There was no actual rhinoceros in that one, just puffs of dust as they supposedly ran by and physical work by the actors whose characters turned into them. The 1974 movie starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, who'd played the same role in the 1961 Broadway production, also eschewed real rhinoceroses in favor of Mostel chewing the scenery. But the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis built immense rubbery rhino outfits for their production in the 80s. And that, too, worked like a charm. Or a rhinoceros.

Whether Illinois Wesleyan University is giving their prop and costume people a rhino-sized workout remains to be seem. But their own Rhinoceros, that timely parable about regular people inexplicably embracing the beasts inside (and outside) to go along with the crowd, opens tonight at 8 pm at the Jerome Mirza Theatre at McPherson Hall on the IWU campus.

Here's how IWU's press materials describe their take on Rhinoceros:
The sublime is confused with the ridiculous in this savage commentary on the human condition. A small town is besieged by one roaring citizen who finds himself turning into a rhinoceros and who proceeds to trample on the social order. As with any "disease," more citizens become infected. "An allegory for our times." - The New York Times "It’s satirical humor, combined with its provocative theme and surprisingly moving ending, results in an evening that is strange, disturbing and arresting." - New York Post
The IWU Rhinoceros stars Chris Woodley as Berenger, a listless young man who is nonetheless a holdout from rhinomania; Will Mueller as Jean, his more punctilious friend; and Maya McHowan as Daisy, the woman Berenger loves. Brooke Emmerich, Holden Ginn, Melissa Iheakam, Paola Lehman, Jean Salgado, Juna Shai, Megan Spencer, Cami Tokowitz, Tuxford Turner, Travis Ulrich, Robert Wilson and Libby Zabit will make up the rest of the rhino-ravaged town.

Rhinoceros runs from February 27 to March 4, with performances at 8 pm Tuesday through Saturday and a matinee at 2 pm on Sunday. You can order tickets online here or call the box office at 309-556-3232.

Monday, February 26, 2018

MR. BURNS Electrifies at ISU


Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play has been around since 2012, but it seems even more timely now than it did then. Are we edging closer to the kind of apocalypse Washburn envisioned? Probably. As other playwrights and authors continue to grapple with the end of the world, Washburn is the only one that uses The Simpsons, blending pop culture, humor and wit into her dystopic nightmare.

Washburn opens with a small group of survivors after some kind of nuclear meltdown. They are sitting around a fire, trying to occupy themselves by retelling a classic Simpsons episode, the one where Sideshow Bob plots to kill Bart by trapping the whole family on a houseboat. That's the "Cape Feare" episode, riffing on Cape Fear, the 1991 movie remake of the previous Cape Fear from 1962. As the survivors in Mr. Burns focus on the fragments of "Cape Feare" they can remember, they also drop desperate pieces of information about their current reality, the one where whole cities lie empty, supplies are limited, almost everyone is dead or missing, and the few who are left are wary of everyone else, guns at the ready.

From this minimalist beginning, we move seven years into the future for Act II, where the campfire group from Act I plus a few new friends are part of a traveling troupe of players whose stock in trade is now performing "Cape Feare," complete with commercials for things like chablis and Diet Coke, goodies they remember from their pre-meltdown life. We learn there are other rival companies trying to monopolize The Simpsons turf, lines from the show have become a sort of currency, and surviving is still a cut-throat business.

And in Act III, 75 years farther along, we see just how far this storytelling odyssey has taken humanity, as they now use Simpsons characters like Homer and Bart in a grand mythic pageant. The Simpsons -- or at least a version transformed, overwritten and mixed up by 75 years of retelling -- has become the ritual and scripture of the new world, layered with new meaning to try to make sense of what happened way back when.

By the end, Illinois State University's production of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play plays like Greek tragedy, liturgy and Simpsons cosplay put in a blender, and that's exactly as it should be. Director Kristin L. Schoenback keeps the pace humming, with the necessary snap and crackle to hold an audience over three acts, and a strong overall vision of how and why we build stories.

The entire company is strong, doing equally well with the spontaneity of the early going and the stylization of the end. Thomas Russell and Johanna Kerber carry the narration nicely in Act I, while Megan Compton and Owen McGee step up as wannabe actors in Act II, and Sarah Ford and Everson Pierce face off sharply in Act III.

Scenic designers Allison McCarthy and John C. Stark, costume designer Amanda Bedker, lighting designer Laura Gisondi and properties manager Nick Chamernik make valuable contributions to the edgy and striking visual landscape that shifts from a dark campfire to a quick-and-dirty world of found objects and then a golden temple. I'm not sure who was responsible for the masks, but they're pretty nifty, too.

Choreographer Mattilyn Nation and fight choreographer Paul Dennhardt deserve credit for keeping things moving when they need to, and sound designer Morgan Hunter, music director Pete Guither and "chart hit" composer Jordan Coughtry up the ante on the aural side.

All in all, this Mr. Burns is provocative and snarky, with all the jagged pieces in place. It's also a helpful reminder to start memorizing Simpsons episodes now. You may need them in the coming nuclear apocalypse.

MR. BURNS: A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY
By Anne Washburn
Music by Michael Friedman. Lyrics by Anne Washburn

The School of Theatre and Dance at Illinois State University
Westhoff Theatre
February 16 to 24, 2018

Director: Kristin L. Schoenback
Music Director: Pete Guither
Choreographer: Mattilyn Nation
Fight Choregrapher: Paul Dennhardt
Scenic Designers: Allison McCarthy and John C. Stark
Costume Designer: Amanda Bedker
Lighting Designer: Laura Gisondi
Sound Designer: Morgan Hunter
Dramaturg: Nicole R. Kippen
Properties Master: Nick Chamernik
Chart Hit Composer: Jordan Coughtry
Assistant Director: Asa Wallace
Stage Manager: Kiara Irizarry

Cast: Paige Brantley, Erika Clark, Megan Compton, Sarah Ford, Emily Franke, Josh Harris, Lauren Hickle, Johanna Kerber, Emma Lizzio, Owen McGee, Daija Nealy, Everson Pierce, Pat Regan, Cody Rogers, Thomas Russell, Deanna Stewart and Caitlin Wolfe.

Running time: 2:30, including two 10-minute intermissions.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

ASSASSINS Is a Misfire at U of I

In Look, I Made a Hat, Stephen Sondheim's book that collects and discusses lyrics he wrote from 1981 to 2011, he talks about the genesis of the show Assassins, which he describes as a "book musical masquerading as a revue, featuring nine of the thirteen assassins who have attempted to kill the president of the United States."

It's an odd idea for a musical, perhaps, to look at the infamous assassins who have slithered around the underbelly of America, but no stranger than murderous women in Chicago in the 20s or the midlife  crisis of an Italian director or Sondheim's own forays into loony bin inmates and a barber consumed with razor-sharp revenge. But perhaps because its subject matter seemed "a little wrong," Assassins was produced off-Broadway first, at Playwrights Horizon, in 1990, with a cast that included Victor Garber, Terrence Mann and Debra Monk among its assassins. It's been steadily produced since then, with a very strong production at Urbana's Station Theater all the way back in 1992, and a splashy revival on Broadway in 2004 that earned a Tony for Michael Cerveris. Along the way, through London and San Jose and St. Louis, Assassins has been adjusted a bit here and there, including the addition of a song, but its basic structure, that book musical masquerading as a revue, remains constant.

Sondheim called John Weidman's book "a collage," and that's as accurate as anything, mixing people from different times in American history, working within its own time and space, overlapping pointy, sharp-edged pieces of the American Dream with gunpowder and fried chicken, with a sense of the theatrical infusing its grimy deeds. At its heart, it's a small musical, one that works just fine in a black box theater. (See: Station Theater production mentioned above.) That means it should be fine in the University of Illinois Studio Theatre in Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. And yet... It isn't.

Director J.W. Morrissette and scenic designer Daniela Cabrera rely on thin candy-cane-striped scaffolding and a circular stair set against the east side of their black box, with seating on the other three sides. There are signs and ephemera scattered here and there, with big dollar signs or "the right to bear arms" or other evocative phrases painted on set pieces, strings of twinkly lights, and a nine-piece orchestra tucked under the narrow platform that spans the top of the scaffolding. Unfortunately, Morrissette has chosen to play significant scenes on that gallery, up there next to the ceiling, which is hard to light and hard to see from major portions of the audience. And the orchestra is pitched too loud and too close, often drowning out singers valiantly trying to negotiate Sondheim's lyrics. Since this is a show that tells its story through its lyrics, that's a big problem.

Morrissette has the benefit of MFA actor Jordan Coughtry as John Wilkes Booth; Coughtry has the vocal and acting skills to make his part of the narrative really sing. Yvon Streacker is also good as Guiseppe Zangara, the man who tried to kill FDR, and the other members of the ensemble have good moments, but they are too often hampered by staging that leaves them isolated and distant from their fellow players and choreography that seems chaotic and messy. As a result, the pace and the individual characterizations suffer.

I saw the show on opening night and it may be that the pieces will gel as it continues its run, that everyone will settle in and find the truth instead of indicating the drama in their characters. I hope so. Assassins is too good a show for missed opportunities.

Assassins continues through February 11 at the Studio Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana. Although there is currently a waiting list for every performance, there were quite a few empty seats on the night I saw the show, which should mean there's a chance you'll get in from that waiting list.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Community Players 2018-19 Season


Community Players Theatre has announced plans for its 2018-19 schedule, opening the season with Peter and the Starcatcher in September of 2018 and finishing it with The Addams Family musical in July of 2019. Their season is the usual mix of plays and musicals, with one Tony-Winning Best Musical (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), one musical based on characters from cartoons (Addams Family), one play based on characters from another beloved play (Starcatcher), one play based on a beloved American novel (Little Women), one musical based on a movie from the 90s (The Wedding Singer) and one play that spawned a movie in the 90s (A Few Good Men).

Peter and the Starcatcher, Rick Elice's freewheeling, let's-put-on-a-show take on Peter Pan, spun off from a novel with a very similar name (Peter and the Starcatchers) written by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Although it features music by Wayne Barker that was nominated for a Tony, it isn't really a musical and it was also nominated as Best Play in 2012. It won a Tony for Best Featured Actor Christian Borle, who played the villainous Black Stache. As described on the Community Players site, "From marauding pirates and jungle tyrants to unwilling comrades and unlikely heroes, Peter and the Starcatcher playfully explores the depths of greed and despair… and the bonds of friendship, duty and love." Auditions for Peter and the Starcatcher will take place July 9 and 10, with performances from September 6 to 16, 2018.

Next up is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the Broadway musical that played for 964 performances and won six Tonys in 1964, with another 156 performances and two Tonys in 1972 and 715 performances and one more Tony in 1996. In the original Broadway production, star Zero Mostel, featured actor David Burns, director George Abbott, producer Hal Prince, writers Burt Shrevelove and Larry Gelbart and the show itself all won Tonys. Stephen Sondheim's songs ("Comedy Tonight," "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," "Lovely") were part of the Best Musical award even if he didn't get singled out for his score. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum takes comedy back to its roots, combining situations from time-tested, 2000-year-old comedies of Roman playwright, Plautus, with the infectious energy of classic vaudeville." With auditions in September, Forum is set to open November 1 and run through the 18th.

To open 2019, they'll be back in play territory with Little Women, which is not the 2005 musical, but a 1996 drama version of Louisa May Alcott's Civil War era novel adapted for the stage by Marisha Chamberlain. There have been any number of takes on Alcott's story of the five March sisters growing up and figuring out who they are against the backdrop of war, loss and love, with actresses as different as Katharine Hepburn, June Allyson, Susan Dey, Winona Ryder and Sutton Foster all taking on Jo, the second-oldest, who dreams of becoming a writer. Maya Thurman-Hawke played the role last year in a three-episode Little Women from the BBC. "Interlaced with warmth, family loyalty and traditional values, all these important events provide us with a better understanding of our own lives. Penned by Louisa May Alcott 150 years ago, this much-loved classic tale’s message is still relevant for audiences today." Look for Little Women auditions in November 2018 and performances January 10 to 20, 2019.

The main character in the original film version of The Wedding Singer was a schlubby 80s guy who made his living, such as it was, performing at weddings. On Broadway, stars Stephen Lynch and Laura Benanti took on the roles played by Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore on film, with a new score written by Matthew Sklar (music) and Chad Beguelin (lyrics), plus two songs -- "Somebody Kill Me" and "Grow Old With You" by Tim Herlihy and Adam Sandler. Herlihy wrote the script for the movie and co-wrote the book for the Broadway show with Beguelin. This is how Players describes the plot: "It’s 1985, and rock star wannabe, Robbie Hart, is New Jersey’s favorite wedding singer. He’s the life of the party until his own fiancée leaves him at the altar. Shot through the heart, Robbie makes every wedding as disastrous as his own. Enter Julia, a winsome waitress who wins his affection. As luck would have it, Julia is about to be married to a Wall Street shark, and, unless Robbie can pull off the performance of a decade, the girl of his dreams will be gone forever." With all the big hair and crazy dances you'd expect from the 1980s, The Wedding Singer will play from March 7 to 24, 2019, with its auditions scheduled for January.

On the big screen, A Few Good Men was famous for Jack Nicholson snarling "You can't handle the truth," but Aaron Sorkin's 1989 Broadway play featured Tom Hulce, Megan Gallagher and Stephen Lang in the roles Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Nicholson took on film. The play also put Sorkin on the map and paved the way for critical successes like The West Wing, The Social Network, Moneyball and Molly's Game. A Few Good Men centers on court martial proceedings where two Marines face possible court martial stemming from the death of a fellow Marine at Guantanamo Bay. "The Navy lawyer, a callow young man more interested in softball games than the case, expects a plea bargain and a cover-up of what really happened. Prodded by a female member of his defense team, the lawyer eventually makes a valiant effort to defend his clients and, in so doing, puts the military mentality and the Marine code of honor on trial."After auditions March 11 and 12, A Few Good Men will be up and running May 2 through 12, 2019.

Ooky and spooky, The Addams Family musical had its try-out in Chicago in 2009 with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth playing Gomez and Morticia. After some tune-ups and fixes from bookwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and composer Andrew Lippa, The Addams Family hit Broadway in March, 2010. It focuses on parental and marital issues as Wednesday comes of age and falls for a regular boy, while Mom and Dad deal with their own romance going stale. Meanwhile,  Uncle Fester is in love with the moon, Mama, Pugsley and Lurch are up to no good, a host of Addams ancestors are swirling around the rafters, and Wednesday's boyfriend's uptight parents are caught in the middle. As Players would have it, "Everything will change for the whole family on the fateful night they host a dinner for Wednesday’s ‘normal’ boyfriend and his parents." This one gets three nights of auditions -- May 11, 12 and 13, 2019 -- with performances set to start July 11 and finish up July 28, 2019.

For details and information, visit the season announcement page at the Community Players website.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Shape of the Oscars, 2018

Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, a fantastical modern twist on Beauty and the Beast, leads the pack with 13 nominations. The film has done very well thus far during awards season, so it's no surprise to see it at the top of the list. What is surprising is the size of its lead: The nearest contender, World War II drama Dunkirk, has eight nominations, with Best Picture favorite Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, with seven. After that, another World War II film, this one with Winston Churchill front and center in The Darkest Hour, and Daniel Day Lewis's proclaimed last movie, The Phantom Thread, each have six nominations. That's a much better take for both than expected, but especially Phantom Thread.


In good news, Jordan Peele's comic horror story, Get Out, made the list for Best Picture and Peele earned nods for Best Screenplay and Best Director as well, Greta Gerwig joins the list of Best Director nominees for Lady Bird, and Mudbound cinematographer Rachel Morrison becomes the first woman ever nominated as Best Cinematographer. On the odd side, Christopher Plummer's last-minute performance in All the Money in the World, replacing Kevin Spacey after he crashed and burned because of sexual misconduct allegations, earned him a spot on the Best Supporting Actor list. Director Ridley Scott reshot all Spacey's scenes with Plummer about five minutes before it was due to open, but that act of heroism was enough to get Plummer a nod

Snubs? James Franco won a Golden Globe for his performance in The Disaster Artist, but he's nowhere to be found on the Oscar Best Actor short list. #TimesUp fallout? Maybe. If there's an explanation for Tom Hanks and Michelle Williams being overlooked for their work in The Post and All the Money in the World, respectively, I don't know what it is. And director Dee Rees certainly deserved a nomination for Mudbound, but she and the film were passed by. Other curiosities: Perennial bridesmaid Steven Spielberg was once again overlooked, this time for The Post, much beloved Wonder Woman got nothing, Martin McDonagh didn't make the Best Director cut for Three Billboards, and Holly Hunter's terrific performance in The Big Sick, which got exactly one nomination -- for its screenplay -- was egregiously overlooked. Personally, I could've taken four or five more nominations for The Big Sick. It ain't easy to do romance well, and this film knocks it out of the park with humor, wit and genuine sentiment.

Of local interest, Illinois State University's Laurie Metcalf has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Lady Bird, while Illinois Wesleyan alum Richard Jenkins earned a nomination as Best Supporting Actor for The Shape of Water.

On to the complete list of nominations for the 2018 Academy Awards:

BEST PICTURE  
Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


BEST ACTOR
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

BEST ACTRESS
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Meryl Streep, The Post

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

BEST DIRECTOR
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Jordan Peele, Get Out

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green, Logan
James Ivory, Call Me by Your Name
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, The Disaster Artist
Aaron Sorkin, Molly’s Game
Virgil Williams and Dee Rees, Mudbound

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick
Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 
Jordan Peele, Get Out

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049
Bruno Delbonnel, Darkest Hour
Dan Laustsen, The Shape of Water
Rachel Morrison, Mudbound
Hoyte van Hoytema, Dunkirk

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
The Insult (Lebanon)>
Loveless (Russia)
On Body and Soul (Hungary)
The Square (Sweden)

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
"Mighty River" from Mudbound, Mary J. Blige
"Mystery of Love" from Call Me by Your Name, Sufjan Stevens
"Remember Me" from Coco, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
"Stand Up for Something" from Marshall, Diane Warren and Common
"This Is Me" from The Greatest Showman, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Carter Burwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water
Jonny Greenwood, Phantom Thread
John Williams, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Hans Zimmer, Dunkirk

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
The Boss Baby
The Breadwinner
Coco
Ferdinand
Loving Vincent

BEST ANIMATED SHORT
Dear Basketball
Garden Party
Lou
Negative Space
Revolting Rhymes


BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Faces Places
Icarus
Last Men in Aleppo
Strong Island


BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Edith+Eddie;
Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405
Heroin(e)
Knife Skills
Traffic Stop

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT  
DeKalb Elementary 
The Eleven O’Clock 
My Nephew Emmett 
The Silent Child 
Watu Wote/All of Us

BEST FILM EDITING
Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, Baby Driver
Jon Gregory, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Tatiana S. Riegel, I, Tonya
Lee Smith, Dunkirk
Sidney Wolinsky, The Shape of Water

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett and Joel Whist, War for the Planet of the Apes
Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Chris Corbould and Neal Scanlan, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover and Gerd Nefzer, Blade Runner 2049
Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza and Mike Meinardus, Kong: Skull Island
Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner and Dan Sudick, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

BEST SOUND EDITING
Alex Gibson and Richard King, Dunkirk
Ren Klyce and Matthew Wood, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Mark Mangini and Theo Green, Blade Runner 2049
Nathan Robitaille and Nelson Ferreira, The Shape of Water Julian Slater, Baby Driver

BEST SOUND MIXING 
Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater and Tim Cavagin, Baby Driver
Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke and Brad Zoern, The Shape of Water
Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett and Doug Hephill, Blade Runner 2049
Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker and Gary A. Rizzo, Dunkirk
Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker and Michael Semanick, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Consolata Boyle, Victoria and Abdul
Mark Bridges, Phantom Thread
Jacqueline Durran, Beauty and the Beast
Jacqueline Durran, Darkest Hour
Luis Sequeira, The Shape of Water

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin and Shane Vieau, The Shape of Water
Nathan Crowley and Gary Fettis, Dunkirk
Dennis Gassner and Alessandra Querzola, Blade Runner 2049
Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, Beauty and the Beast
Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, Darkest Hour

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIR 
Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard, Victoria and Abdul
Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick, Darkest Hour
Arjen Tuiten, Wonder

Monday, January 22, 2018

Normal Theater Six-Week Film School Focuses on "Wonder Women Directors"


Professor William McBride will be starting a new six-week film school at the Normal Theater tomorrow night. You may recall previous offerings centered on film noir, Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese. This time, McBride will be looking at films directed by women, starting with Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong (1933), starring Katharine Hepburn as an independent-minded aviator, January 24 at 7 pm, and in subsequent weeks moving on to Ida Lupino’s thriller The Hitch-Hiker (1953); A League of Their Own (1992), Penny Marshall’s love letter to professional women’s baseball during World War II; Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), a highly cinematic look at two lost souls navigating the modern world; Selma (2014), Ava DuVernay’s take on Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle for voting rights; and the superhero phenomenon Wonder Woman (2017), directed by Patty Jenkins.

That's quite a range of styles and themes, but Professor McBride is clear on why he chose them:
"On my way out of the Normal Theater following the post-screen discussion of one of Scorsese’s films, a female patron approached me and asked why not do a series of female directors? I have been working on our new series ever since—and given the current cultural moment regarding harassment and gender inequality in Hollywood, Washington, and everywhere else, the timing of Wonder Women Directors seems perfect. Joining me for individual screenings will be Shari Zeck, Interim Dean, Milner Library, Illinois State University; Li Zeng, Head of Theatre and Film Studies and Film Minor, Illinois State University; Chamere Poole, Dept. of English Ph.D. candidate, Illinois State University; and Ann Johnson, Dept. of Sociology Masters student, Illinois State University, who will discuss the overarching cultural concepts of sex, power, history, and film style in these six films directed by women."
Although it's called a film school, there are no tests and no assignments. McBride will be there to introduce each movie and lead the post-show discussion, and he also offers hand-outs and extra material to supplement your viewing, but anyone is free to attend the films for free at the Normal Theater, Tuesday nights at 7 pm from January 24 to March 7, with a week off for Valentine's Day.

This time out, McBride and the Normal Theater are asking you to RSVP or reserve a seat, with a link to do just that on the program's page at the Normal Theater website. You'll find details on each film there, and that's also where the extra materials will go once they're up.

Christopher Strong alone has generated pages and pages of commentary on what it says about gender, feminism, professional women, culture, romance, and what a girl had to do to get by in the 1930s, as well as its sensational costume design, so I know you'll enjoy hearing what McBride and his experts have to say on that one!

Friday, January 12, 2018

MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL Streaming Free All Weekend at Amazon.com

The sprightly Amazon comedy known as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is having a very happy new year. It's already been named the best comedy series on TV by Golden Globes and Critics Choice voters, with Rachel Brosnahan, who really is marvelous as Mrs. Maisel, nabbing Best Actress awards from both groups. To celebrate all that awards success, Amazon is now making The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel available to everyone (not just Amazon Prime subscribers, in other words) this weekend, so that everyone can share the joy. You can stream it for free starting at 12:01 am today and ending at 11:59 pm Monday January 15.

All eight episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel bowed on Amazon last November. I admit: I binged the minute they were available. The series looks great -- no surprise costume designer Donna Zakowska is nominated for awards of her own --  and it has enough humor and heart to really sell its story.

What story? When we first meet Miriam "Midge" Maisel, she's enjoying her life as a housewife on the Upper West Side in the late 1950s. Nice Jewish husband, two babies, lovely apartment in the same building as her parents... Midge Maisel has it all under control. She can hire Broadway dancers and give the perfect speech to make her wedding zing, she can make the perfect brisket to get her wannabe standup comedian husband a slot in a club (he has a cushy day job but longs to don a turtleneck and do standup in Greenwich Village) and she can perform the perfect calisthenics necessary to keep her perfect figure. Unfortunately, her husband shows pretty quickly he isn't really up to all that perfection. He's gone, her parents are having a meltdown, and her whole identity is on the line. And, at that moment, with her well-ordered life tipped upside-down, Midge discovers her talents may be very different from what she expected. After a couple of meetings with Lenny Bruce (winningly played by Luke Kirby of Slings and Arrows fame) and some help from a scruffy comedy manager (very funny Alex Borstein), Mrs. Maisel is on her way.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has all the rapid-fire, breezy dialogue you'd expect from an Amy Sherman-Palladino project. Rachel Brosnahan doesn't exactly offer a Jewish 1958 version of Lorelai Gilmore, but she's close. Her Midge is also funny, smart, complicated and beautiful. And again, that wardrobe!

I am not all that into standup comedy as a milieu, but it doesn't really matter. It's Midge and how she steamrolls her life that makes it magic. Brosnahan carries the show beautifully, with all kinds of help from a terrific supporting cast. Borstein and Kirby are part of that, with Marin Hinkle and Tony Shalhoub making a huge contribution -- they're crazy and infuriating, but fiercely funny -- as Midge's neurotic parents, with guest actors like Nate Cordrry, Joe Grifasi, Jane Lynch, David Paymer, Kevin Pollak, Wallace Shawn and Mary Testa making vivid impressions along the way. And then there's Michael Zegen, given the unenviable task of bringing to life limp noodle Joel Maisel, Midge's husband. He is successful at making Joel a weasel, but it seems like a no-brainer that she's better off without him.

It remains to be seen in Season Two just how independent Mrs. Maisel will become with her newfound standup confidence and whether Mr. Maisel will appear as anything more than a distant memory. Given that she's still got his name and his kids, I have to think Joel will be sticking around in some capacity. But there's plenty of conflict left to explore with her parents and how they'll react to the new downtown Midge, how she manages being a mother while she's on stage, where she lives and how she keeps brisket on the table, and where, if anywhere, Midge looks for romance. Who needs Joel?

You'll find The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel streaming this weekend at Amazon.com.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Opening Tonight: COMPLETE WORKS (ABRIDGED) at Community Players


As you might expect from the name of the theatrical organization itself, the Reduced Shakespeare Company's first in a collection of various kinds of "works" sewn together in a fast, funny and "abridged" condition was the one about Shakespeare. I've seen it called The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) and a few other variations on that theme.

The basic idea is that three actors (in early days, Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, who are also credited with the script) perform a very abbreviated romp through all of Shakespeare's plays, done up with silly wigs, goofy props, lots of physical and verbal humor that generally aims for the lowest common denominator, and a certain amount of audience interaction. Puns! Football! Julia Child! And even a little Shakespeare. It's good stuff for performers with lots of energy and very little shame. 

The Reduced Shakespeare Company's Complete Works is a popular choice -- it appeared twice in four seasons on the Illinois Shakespeare Festival schedule -- plus it's been done in pieces by a long parade of high school actors in speech and theater competitions and it's even toured through these parts by the Reduced Shakespeare guys themselves. Each trio that performs it makes it new, dependent upon the skills and special talents they bring to the table. Will it a be a grad-school-hangover Reduced Works, a hillbilly Reduced Works, a serious-actors-stuck-in-purgatory Reduced Works, or something completely different?

Community Players opens its very own version of the "cultural touchstone" that is The Reduced Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) with a preview performance tonight at 7:30 pm, directed by Brett Cottone, with Dave Montague, Chris Stevenson and Missy Freese standing in for Daniel, Adam and Jess, in that order. It's a little unusual to see a woman taking part in a Reduced Work, but, hey, girls want to have fun, too.

This Reduced Works continues through January 21, with all Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 pm and Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm.

For more information, click here for the Players webpage on this production or here to purchase tickets. You can also call the box office at 309-663-2121 for more information.