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.