Sunday, February 27, 2011

- Theater Review - Bus Stop

On Saturday night, I joined a small group of people at the Peoria Civic Center for the Montana Repertory Theatre's presentation of "Bus Stop".

I say "small group" because it was one of the sparsest audiences I have seen at a Civic Center Theater production. 
What a shame that so few people were on hand to enjoy this exciting event.

Peoria was given a rare treat in this visit from the prestigious Montana Rep and their excellent production of this William Inge classic.

While many people are familiar with the 1956 film version starring Marilyn Monroe and Don Murray, the stage version is much cleaner and succinct.

The entire play takes place in a diner west of Kansas City in March of 1955. The diner serves as a bus stop on bus routes to and from the American west.  A snowstorm has closed the highway and stranded the bus and its passengers at the diner for most of a night. 

The action explores the various relationships between the eight characters. 
There is Bo, the immature, inexperienced cowboy who is taking cabaret singer Cherie (literally by force) to his ranch in Montana to be his wife. 
There is the married owner of the diner, Grace, who is beginning a relationship with the bus driver Carl.
Another of the passengers is Professor Lyman, a drunken former teacher with a shady  past involving underage girls.  He begins a flirtation with the young, naive waitress Elma.
Virgil is an older cowboy and father figure to Bo.  He is ultimately and literally left out in the cold at play's end.
Overseeing the group is Sheriff Will.  His is the voice of morality, reason, and conscience.
All of the actors did a splendid job and the diner set was nothing short of perfect.

Thanks to the Montana Repertory Theatre for this wonderful production, and thanks to the Peoria Civic Center for taking a chance on a single night's engagement.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

- Theater Review - The Learned Ladies

For the latest offering of the 2011 season, Bradley University Theater presents  "The Learned Ladies".

Pulling off a Moliere comedy can be a tall order for a young troupe of actors.  It is no easy feat to perform a 339 year old French farce, translated into English and delivered in rapid-fire rhyming verse.

And yet true to our expectations, the Bradley U students manage to make it work.

At the center of the story are two young lovers, Henriette and Clitandre.  Their plans to marry are soon thwarted by Henriette's sister, Armande, her mother Philaminte, and her Aunt Belise.

These three women are the "learned ladies", who value art and culture above all else.  They worship the hackneyed works of their protege, Trissotin. 
Trissotin is a poet of dubious talent and an opportunist with his eyes on the family fortune when the Learned Ladies decide that he should be the chosen mate for Henriette.

Henriette's father, Chrysale, and her Uncle Ariste both wish for Henriette to follow her heart into a union with Clitandre.  Chrysale, however, is a weak and hen-pecked man who allows his wife to run the family.

What follows is a series of outrageous and funny events that culminate in a surprise twist where all is resolved and made clear.

As Trissotin, BU veteran Andrew Kuhlman is in the type of role that he does well and that he obviously loves - one that is loud, over the top, and larger than life.

The Learned Ladies are played with zeal by Sarah Tilford, Janice Gerlach, and Chloe Dzielak.  Their facial expressions and effusiveness are perfectly suited for farce. 
Ms. Tilford's Belise is a particular delight.  The older maiden aunt remains convinced in her mind that nearly every young man must be secretly in love with her.

Julian Stroup gets a lot of mileage out of his role as Chrysale, the meek husband who finally finds his way to head of his household.  Ross Cochran also is good as his brother Ariste, who becomes the hero of the tale.

Laura Schermer and Brian Zinda are convincingly sweet as the young lovers.

The Bradley Theater group always excels at set construction and this is no exception.  The Baroque French drawing room is impressive and functional to the execution of the play.  Well done.

As I said, this is a difficult play that is well performed here by the Bradley troupe. 
If one overlooks the underlying themes of anti-intellectualism and female subservience, the play can still be funny and enjoyable after nearly three and a half centuries.

It continues Saturday, February 26th through Sunday, March 6th at the Hartmann Center for the Performing Arts on the Bradley University campus.


Peoria's Song

What follows is a 'guest editorial' from Margaret Cousin, the current Vice-President of Central Illinois Landmarks Foundation. 
It is the complete version of an edited op-ed piece published in the PJStar.

                         Peoria's Song

I talk a lot about buildings that sing. Their loveliness creates a special kind of music that stirs a powerful response in me. Most often it’s old buildings that do this. Perhaps this is because they have those special ingredients of historic importance and architectural uniqueness that evoke an awareness of and perspective on our past.

We all cherish family heirlooms and consider ourselves fortunate if they pass down to us. They are the remaining tangible evidence of people whose stories we know, who contributed to our own evolution of identity and character. Who among us would go into the attic of a beloved relative and throw treasures away without serious, measured regard for their intrinsic value and the consequences of their loss? Our city is no different. It is our larger family. It is our greater history. It has a legacy of its own.

During several glorious autumn weekends in 2009, I made the photo album and spreadsheet that identify some of the structures in Peoria with local designation potential. They represent a portion of our extant historic stock, an astounding percent having already been destroyed. As a CLG (Certified Local Government), Peoria is required to maintain an effective historic preservation program for the identification and protection of historic resources. Not only should such a survey have been done at some point in the last 20 years to fulfill our standing with the State of Illinois, but the survey process should be ongoing. This “list” wasn’t meant to target or threaten, although it was perceived as such and was, ironically enough, produced at the request of the City Council. It was meant to identify the most significant and meaningful of our structures. These examples, sprinkled throughout our core city and gracing our streetscapes, are the singular visual and cultural inheritance of our forefathers. They are the heirlooms in our attic.

The project stirred up such consternation that it helped trigger the events which resulted in the City Council’s February 8, 2011 vote to monumentally alter our historic preservation ordinance. The Council voluntarily relinquished its role in the necessary, active process of historic preservation, a process aimed at protecting our cultural heritage. Preservation accomplishes a very pertinent and vital goal, that of promoting tourism, assuring stable neighborhoods and enhanced property values via strong historic districts, and cultivating sustained economic activity in Peoria’s center. The decision to abdicate participation in anything other than mandatory owner consent landmark cases, which are by their nature benign rather than challenging, opened the door for demolition at will. Of any or all of our most noteworthy vintage elements, possibly too old-fashioned, too worn out, too costly to be viewed as viable by their present custodians. With such an ordinance in place, Easton Mansion would not have risen from its ashes like a phoenix under the loving care of Jane Converse, nor would the beautifully restored and successful adaptive reuse of the Musicians Hall, Busey Bank, grace Kumpf Boulevard.

By making no provision for any other entity to fill the footprints it has vacated, the Council also left a critical vacuum with no representative of the community’s interests able to act on behalf of those interests. Compounding this with the directive that put the “onus” for owner education on preservationists turned what had been a collaborative effort into a lonely endeavor moving forward. “Unpleasant burden” is the literal definition of that word, and it is discouraging to think of our designation efforts and achievements in those terms.

We will be as good as the best of our decisions or as mediocre as the worst. We will sink, or we will soar. Shall we be a city whose claim to fame is what we used to have? Sad, nostalgic mentions on one of the Peoria Historical Society’s delightful and educational trolley tours? I want my Peoria skyline to include inspiring profiles from the past as well as contemporary testaments to the future. I want my elected officials to aspire to take part in that process through a restored ordinance. Not just celebrating the landmark after someone else has persuaded and researched and presented it, but in concerted partnership to promote and preserve the surviving, remarkable historic resources we cannot afford to lose. Therein lies the true vision, the true victory. For the City Council, for preservationists, and for Peoria.

Margaret E. Cousin, Vice-President, Central Illinois Landmarks Foundation


Saturday, February 19, 2011

- Theater Review - Angels in America: Millennium Approaches

The Corn Stock Winter Playhouse opened its latest presentation on Friday night:
"Angels in America: Millennium Approaches".

I must admit that when Corn Stock first announced their winter season, I was surprised and apprehensive to see this play in the line-up. 
It is such an epic and complex piece that it is an ambitious undertaking for any amateur theater group and especially for the intimate confines of the Winter Playhouse's in-the-round venue.

The Corn Stock players not only rose to the challenge, they have presented here one of the finest collections of ensemble acting seen locally since Peoria Players' "Diary of Anne Frank".

This Pulitzer Prize winning first half of Tony Kushner's epic drama is set in Ronald Reagan's America of the mid eighties.  It uses politics and the AIDS holocaust to explore issues of identity, inner struggle, morality, and spirituality. 
Although the face of the AIDS epidemic has changed drastically in the last twenty-five years, this play remains extremely relevant in today's America of increased political divisiveness between the left and the right.

At the heart of the tale is Prior Walter, a young man recently diagnosed with AIDS and in a relationship  with Louis Ironson, a young Jewish man confronting his own issues of commitment and loyalty.

Prior's life is paralleled with that of Joe Pitt, a young Mormon lawyer struggling with his sexual identity.  His new young wife, Harper, lives in her own Valium fueled fantasy world.

Joe is being courted by Roy Cohn to come to Washington as a part of the Reagan Justice Department.  The Cohn character (based on the real person) is a ruthless closeted man also recently diagnosed with AIDS.  For Cohn the ultimate aphrodisiac truly is power and the wielding of it to control others. 
He considers his life's greatest accomplishment to be securing the death penalty for Ethel Rosenberg, using his influence in an illicit manner to accomplish it.

The play calls for eight actors to play multiple roles, some intentionally cross-gendered.  These eight actors, without exception, deliver superb performances.

Jacob Uhlman is perfectly cast as Prior Walter.  His physical appearance coupled with his emotional delivery bring the character to life.  He captures the correct mix of camp and pathos.

The character of Roy Cohn is one of the nastiest and most repulsive villains in modern drama.  Clark Rians sinks his teeth into this role like a pit bull and shakes every bit of intensity and meanness out of it. 

Landen Zumwalt is right on the money in his performance as the extremely conflicted Joe Pitt, walking the emotional tightrope between his Mormon upbringing and his inner desires.

Emily Crusen is excellent as the drug-addled Harper Pitt,  She shines particularly brightly in the Antarctica fantasy scene.

Rebecca Frankel Clifton shows a terrific range in playing two male and two female characters.  She is Hannah Pitt (Joes' mother), Henry, Rabbi Chemelwitz, and Ethel Rosenberg.  She brings believability to each of these varied roles, all amazing performances.

Will Loftus personifies Jewish Guilt as Louis Ironson.  His character is the link between the parallel narratives.
Last year, Mr. Loftus impressed with his comedic performance as William Barfee in EastLight's "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee".  He shows us here that he does drama equally well.

Eric Gore (Belize, and Mr. Lies) and Chloe Whiting Stevens (Nurse Emily, Sister Chapter, Homeless Woman, and The Angel) round out this excellent cast with their own great individual performances.

Although the dragging in and out of large set pieces is a bit distracting, the play is for the most part well executed from a technical standpoint.
The story is enhanced through the projection of video images onto two large screens.  The images contain snapshots of America during the 1980s.
In larger theatrical performances, the Angel makes her appearance in a most dramatic fashion, bursting through the wall or ceiling. 
The Angel's appearance here is perfectly orchestrated in consideration of the smallness of the space.
In addition to stage management and technical staff, congratulations must be given to Director Dani Keil for this first rate production.

It was announced that the second half of the play, "Angels in America: Perestroika" will be performed in the Winter Playhouse's 2011-2012 season.  I can only hope that the same director and cast will return for that effort.

This first half of the play runs a full three and a half hours, excluding two intermissions totalling twenty minutes.   That may seem like a lengthy evening, but believe me, you will not want to see the end of a show this good.

Performances continue tonight, tomorrow, and through next Saturday.  Tickets are only $10 for adults, $7 for students and may be purchased at the door or by calling the box office at 676-2196.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

February Poetry Corner

When You Are Old
             by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Peoria Players 2011 - 2012 Season

Peoria Players has announced its 2011 -2012 Season:

Musical To Be Announced - September 9-11, 14-18, 2011

Over The River And Through The Woods - October 7-9, 13-16, 2011

Annie - November 11-13, 16-20, 2011

Titanic the Musical - February 3-5, 8-12, 2012

Big River - March 16-18, 21-25, 2012

Chicago - May 4-6, 9-13, 2012

Season tickets - $75 - $80   
Available at the theater box office in Lakeview Park or by calling 688-4473.


- Theater Review - The Wizard of Oz

Peoria Players continued their season with the Friday night opening of "The Wizard of Oz".

The show is an ambitious extravaganza that provides a delightful, if only slightly uneven, night of theater enjoyment.

This production closely follows the 1939 movie version of the Frank Baum classic, with a few notable exceptions.  Most exciting of these is the inclusion of the lost Jitterbug number. 
Oz fans are well acquainted with the story of this scene.  Although it is referred to by the witch in the final movie, the scene was deleted and all film destroyed (however, many fans still fantasize about prints being discovered someday in a Hollywood vault!). 
In this number, the Wicked Witch sets her Jitterbug upon the four travellers.  The bite of the Jitterbug results in uncontrollable dancing, and the choreography in this number is absolutely wonderful. 
The dancing in this one number is well worth the price of admission.

With a cast featuring literally dozens of actors, there are several standout performances.

Possessing a lovely voice and an impressive stage presence, Clare Zell is superb as Dorothy Gale. 
Katie McLuckie's Glinda is right on the mark.
Barb Couri, Mary Sierra, and Carol Urish are delightful as the iconic apple trees.
Roger Roemer shines as the palace guard. 
Bryan Blanks is great at the Tin Man, although with a bad mic, his performance was marred by Players' perennial sound problems.
Julie Boesch does a great turn as the Witch.
Charles Killen's Lion is appropriately endearing.
Rose Blume (great name!) and Andrew Harlan stand out among Munchkins as the Barrister and the Coroner respectively.

The very best performance of the night was turned in by Josh Hammond as the Scarecrow.  He perfectly nailed the difficult dance moves that were epitomized by Ray Bolger in the film version.  He captured his character perfectly, and with a great voice to boot, he stole the show.

One of the problem numbers was "Ding Dong The Witch is Dead".  Although the Winkies did a fine job in their "March of the Winkies", this signature number appeared totally unrehearsed.

Another weak link in the show was the setting.  The resolving center set was very impressive, but the Munchkin village was uninspired and a couple of the set pieces crossed from amateurish to downright cheesy. 
An example is Professor Marvel's wagon and more importantly, Glinda's bubble. 
The bubble appeared to be covered by something like screen wire that didn't quite come together in the middle.  A simple illuminated sphere would have been much more effective.

On a more positive staging note, the use of video projection on the theater ceiling for the tornado and for the encounter with the Wizard was inspired and it added a high-tech update to this familiar story.

With a couple small glitches aside, this is a truly epic production, and one that your children and grandchildren will love.

And so will you.

Kudos to Mary Ellen Ulrich for her direction and to Aliesha Graves for her excellent choreography!

The show runs through next weekend at the theater in Lakeview Park.