by Matthew Falduto
It’s been a great year. And now it’s time to look back and recognize some truly wonderful shows. I started with a list of over seventy shows and narrowed it down to just ten. Ten shows that will be awarded the first (annual?) Excellence in Exercising our Emotions Prizes… The EEEPs if you will. (And even if you won’t.) What does “exercise our emotions mean? Over a year ago, I wrote this in a review of City Circle’s production of Rabbit Hole:
“I believe that theatre serves an important purpose that we don’t talk about very much. Just as physical exercise strengthens our muscles and intellectual exercise strengthens our minds, emotional exercise strengthens our spirits. That’s what theatre at its best is: emotional exercise. It’s an opportunity for us to laugh, to cry, to anger, and through those feelings, regenerate our spirits.”
We need to feel joy and sadness and glee and fear and wonder and anger in order to thrive in this life. Theatre allows us a safe place to do that. So what follows are ten shows that have earned the 2010 Iowa Theatre Blog Excellence in Exercising our Emotions Prizes.
(Before I begin, let me just state quite clearly that I have my biases just like everyone else. If you’d like to know what connections I have to various theatres, you can see my bio at the end. Also, the fact remains that I didn’t see every show this year and there almost certainly is a show or three that deserves to be here but isn’t simply because I didn’t see it. The point of this list is to honor some really amazing shows from 2010, not provide the definitive opinion of what the best shows were. I’m just one guy.)
In alphabetical order, here are the ten shows of 2010 who have been awarded an EEEP:
City Circle and Dreamwell Theatre
I love this event. Six writers, six directors and a whole host of actors create six original ten minute plays in 24 hours. City Circle and Dreamwell have presented this event for the last three years and this year had the best plays yet. Performed at the wonderful Englert Theatre, all six were good, not a clunker in the bunch. The audience laughed, were spooked, and even aww-ed at one point. This is an exciting event – do not miss the 2011 version. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there’s usually a Cedar Rapids version of this event not produced by any specific theatre that is absolutely worth checking out.
One of Dreamwell’s taboo bijou shows, this show was a tour de force for its two principal actors, Rip Russell and Erin Mills, and vivid demonstration of Angie Toomsen’s incredible direction. Ray and Una were lovers when he was 40 and she was only twelve. This play explores their relationship fifteen years later after Ray has served time in prison. Sometimes we just want to watch two amazing actors tear up the stage. The moment at the end when Ray’s young stepdaughter enters brought gasps and tears from the audience as we saw in front of us the innocence he had stolen from Una so many years before. I think this anonymous comment summed it up best: “Dreamwell’s Blackbird, sculpted to its frank and disturbing portrait of the characters, stopped my breath.”
Iowa City Community Theatre
ICCT has had a rough couple of years. They feared financial difficulties might end their reign as the longest running theatre in the Iowa City area. Fortunately, they pushed forward, rallying the theatre community to create All in the Timing when a show was unexpectedly canceled, collaborating with Dreamwell to produce 9 Parts of Desire in the festival stage in City Park, and offering great musical productions like Wonderful Town, which was expertly directed by Ben Bentler. But perhaps no show better personifies their fairy tale rise from the ashes like their final offering of 2010 – Cinderella, also directed by the extremely talented Bentler. For this magical show, they pulled out all the stops, transforming their lobby into a land of make believe. The performance featured a horse. Yes, a real live horse. Cinderella’s wand was a sight to behold. And best of all, the show was so successful, they added performances this weekend. It must feel good to be back, ICCT. Congrats.
Riverside has offered consistently good theatre over the years. But as I wrote in the review, End Days is one of the finest shows I’ve seen on their stage: “There is really nothing to criticize in this show. The set is great, the acting is phenomenal, and the direction is economical and smart.” What’s more, this show tackled the subject of 9/11 in a fresh and interesting way. Nearly ten years later, our nation still haven’t recovered from that day. Plays like End Days help us move a little further down the path. Riverside does excellent work throughout the year, but this show was the one that most exercised my emotions.
Working Group Theatre
Working Group burst onto the theatre scene this year. As a theatre in residence at Riverside, they have had a great stage to present their original plays and some experimental theatrical events. But my favorite Working Group show this year was the one that took place on a farm on the outskirts of town. Using the Iowa landscape to tell a classic hero’s journey story was inspired. They introduced us to promenade theatre where the audience follows the action to different locations. Every setting was carefully chosen for maximum impact. This was bold, original theatre that challenged convention. All I can say is I can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.
City Circle Acting Company of Coralville
The choreography was wonderful. The singing was excellent. But what I liked best was the unique framing device directors Rachel Howell and Chris Okiishi used to tell this story. Rather than jump right into a story on an island far away with Iowan actors looking well, out of place, they set it up that the actors were Iowans who ran into the space to seek shelter from a tornado. A crying girl lead one of actors in the role of a Children’s Museum worker to begin to tell the heartbreaking story of Ti Moune, the peasant girl who fell in love with a boy far above her station. We were drawn in so swiftly and so intensely into a beautiful story. The music was joyful and it was clear these actors enjoyed every minute of the show. And so did we, the audience.
My first encounter with this play was from a slightly intoxicated friend who pushed the script into my hand saying, “Matt, you have to read this script.” Uh huh, I said. Poona the what dog? Sure, I’ll get to it. The script sat on my dresser for a few months. Finally, I picked it up and decided what the heck. I’ll check it out. I have never laughed so hard reading a script in all of my life. But what stuck with me was the… well, message is too strong of a word. The point, perhaps? This play skewers everything from sex to war to language to terrorism and then sex again. Seeing Dreamwell tackle this show and provoke so much laughter and so much thinking… well, it was a joy to behold. This is a show that needs to be done more. We’re lucky to have a theatre willing to tackle shows with the word “f*ck” in the title.
Theatre Cedar Rapids
Ah, Proof. A small, intimate piece of theatre best suited for a black box. I can’t wait to see what… wait, Theatre Cedar Rapids is doing it? With that huge stage? I gotta check it out. And I was blown away. As I wrote at the time, “this design embraces the size of the stage and uses the blackness around it to emphasize the solitary life of its two principal characters and set the melancholy mood of the piece.” All four actors (Rachel Howell, Jessica Link, Rob Merritt, and Demetrios Hadjis) were brilliant and the direction by J David Carey sublime. Such a wonderful show demonstrating that TCR can do a lot more than big splashy musicals.
Theatre Cedar Rapids
I did not see this one, but my wife took our oldest daughter to it and they came home mesmerized. A dizzying display of beautiful costumes. A bold but simple set. A strong young heroine as the moral center of the show. A message that doesn’t talk down to kids. And there were so many good performances from Anna Mlodzik as Iris to Alex Williams and Dyanna Davidson as the the Goods. This is what good children’s theatre is all about. We all love Annie, but let’s hope TCR continues to choose unique and interesting kids’ shows.
Old Creamery Theatre
Our reviewer’s remarks created a firestorm in the comments section, but the critics of the critic missed the point. We loved this show. It was an amazing display of powerful, honest acting in one of the best American plays of all time. Our insightful reviewer Andrew Juhl wrote it best: “[Tom] Milligan’s ‘George’ and [Marquetta] Senters’ ‘Martha’ go from loving to hateful to deceitful and back again numerous times, making many stops along the way, and all of them believable, well-choreographed, and tight-spoken.” It’s easy to get caught up in what’s new and fresh, but it’s also important to remember the classics. Almost 50 years since it was written, this play still stands up.
And so 2010 comes to a close. But don’t worry – there are plenty of exciting shows coming in 2011. Henry V, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Drowsy Chaperone, All My Sons, A Little Night Music, The Obsession Show and Art, to name just a few. Happy New Year!
Matthew Falduto founded Dreamwell Theatre over 13 years ago. He has served on the board of the Iowa City Community Theatre and the board nomination committee for City Circle. For close to twenty years, he has produced, directed, and acted in many shows in the Iowa City area with many different companies. A playwright, he is also a member of the Black Doggers. He started the Iowa Theatre Blog in 2007 because he felt the excellent theatre productions of our area were not getting the coverage they deserved. Just in the last year, over 50 shows were reviewed.