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Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012 04:01 pm

UIS stages a classic, True West

And don’t miss Den of Thieves by the Less is More Theatre Company

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Craig Rauch as Austin and Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson as Lee in the UIS theatre department’s performance of True West.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MISSY THIBODEAUX-THOMPSON

Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson, the head of the UIS theatre department these last 10 years, is taking a sabbatical this semester, but he is staying home in Springfield. As head of an academic program, he does not normally have the time to act in productions. But his sabbatical has given him time to perform in what is now an American stage classic,
True West, by Sam Shepard, in the Studio Theatre at UIS Feb. 24-26 and March 1-3 (7:30 p.m. except for a 2 p.m. matinee on Sun., Feb. 26). The production is directed by UIS theatre professor Milissa Thibodeaux-Thompson, Eric’s wife.

 The play is about two estranged brothers who have not seen each other in many years. Austin (Craig Rauch), the younger brother, is a successful screenwriter. Lee (Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson), the older, is a drifter of sorts. They do not get along and the plot revolves around the reappearance of Lee to his brother and what ensues. Without giving too much away, this play about sibling rivalry also becomes a play about role reversals. The UIS production also features Tom Hutchinson and Susan Jeffers.

 If you haven’t seen Shepard’s play, this is a chance to view one of America’s best playwrights at work. Shepard’s writing came of age in the 1960s off-Broadway theater and his plays were produced at LaMamma & Café Cino, two small theaters that offered a place for young writers. True West has an interesting history: it premiered at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in 1980, where Shepard was a playwright-in-residence. From there it moved to the Public Theatre in New York, where it had a disastrous production that starred Peter Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones. Shepard was not happy with the production and denounced it as not his work. True West closed quickly.

 It wasn’t until two years later that True West was given new life, this time by two young Chicago actors, Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. Sinise directed a production at the now-famous Steppenwolf Theatre. That production was greeted with such acclaim it moved on to New York, where it opened off-Broadway in 1982 and ran for more than 700 performances. Sinise and Malkovich are now well-known stars of stage and screen.

 Why is True West now considered a classic? Partly because it says something about what America was becoming, and then asking where was it going. It is a funny comedy and a terrifying drama all rolled into one. That makes for exciting theater too.

For ticket information call the box office, 217-206-6160, or online at www.uis.edu/theatre.

 Finishing a two-week run this weekend is Den of Thieves, a dark comedy given a super performance by the new The Less Is More Theatre Company in the basement theater space at the Legacy Theatre at 101 W. Lawrence Ave. It’s always good to see new work and this new troupe of actors all gave strong performances, directed by Nicole Sylvester. Seeing the play in that space at the Legacy brought back memories for a lot of folks in the audience. It’s good to have another space for risky theater. The show plays Friday-Sunday and tickets can be bought at the door ($10) or online at www.atthelegacy.com).

 Another new musical is in rehearsal at the Hoogland Center for the Arts on South Sixth Street in downtown Springfield: the Tony Award-winning show Avenue Q, playing March 9-11 and 16-18. This is a funny and irreverent musical with great tunes. Some call Avenue Q an adult version of “Sesame Street.” The show takes place in a neighborhood and the characters are played by puppets – the difference here is you also see the actors manning their puppets. In fact, that is part of the brilliance of the show, which won three Tony Awards on Broadway (Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book).

 According to director Mac Warren, the rehearsals have been exciting. “The puppet-actors have enjoyed the challenge of bringing a character – made of felt or fur – to life onstage,” he says. “We started rehearsals with Puppet Boot Camp,” says Warren, “where we broke down the essential skills of puppeteering.”

He also spoke about how “Sesame Street” taught them, as children, to be nice to one another, “how to tie our shoes, and even how we share. The Avenue Q puppets provide adults with the same valuable ‘life information,’ only now it is what you need to know as an adult! As such, this show contains adult content and language and is not suitable for children.”

 This is true. The show is for mature audiences only (contains profanity and sexual situations).

For ticket information, call the box office (217-523-2787 or online at www.hcfta.org).

Phil Funkenbusch directs theater and sometimes performs onstage: Peter Quince in Midsummer Night’s Dream and Gus the Theater Cat in Cats.

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