We’re trying something new. In order to foster more community and make this site a little more interactive, we’re presenting TOP FIVE posts, where theatre artists tell us about the TOP FIVE shows they’ve been a part of. If you’d like to submit your TOP FIVE, send us an email (ictheatreblog AT gmail.com).
Today we get to read about John Harper’s TOP FIVE. His list includes productions spanning more than 20 years. You can read more about John at the end of the post. If you remember any of these shows, feel free to leave a comment and share your memories.
5) Homesickness by Glenn Blumstein. University of Iowa, 1985.
This play was by Glenn Blumstein, arguably one of the best writers ever to grace the UI Playwrights Workshop. A small group of boys are at a summer camp, with a counselor who is a bitter, sadistic Viet-Nam veteran who takes out his anger and frustration on the campers. At the age of 43, I played a 12 y/o mentally challenged epileptic boy, who was the prime target of the counselor. A number of my colleagues say it was my best work ever on stage. Many rehearsals consisted of climbing trees, playing on swings and jungle gyms, and engaging in the kind of bratty behavior typical of pre-adolescents. The humor was very dark, and my character was in a state of terror through most of the play. My friend and 20 y/o student Greg Neagle, who was 5’6”, 110 lbs, and could pass for a 12 y/o, played my twin brother. The show is also memorable as the last University production ever mounted in the studio theatre space in Old Armory before it was torn down and replaced by a massive addition to the UI theatre building.
4) Quilt: The Aids Musical. City Circle, 2000.
I directed this production for City Circle in 2000. Even though I’m a musical person, this is the only piece of musical theatre I’ve ever been compelled to take on as a director. At the time, I had lost a dozen or so friends and colleagues to AIDS, and had played a major role in bringing sections of the AIDS Quilt to Iowa City. The musical is mostly a series of vignettes which reveal aspects of the daily lives of people living with AIDS, their family members and significant others, and sometimes their care givers. The entire gamut of emotions is on display. Some scenes are hysterically funny, such as the man who insists on being buried in Marilyn Monroe’s famous white dress. Others are heart-breaking, such as the loss felt by a little girl on the death of her uncle, who speaks to her from bryond the grave. I had a dynamite cast which included Michael Stokes, Patti McTaggart, Tim Barnes, Kate Thompson, Tim Budd, and many more. The set started out as a blank wall across the back of the stage. And as each story was told, uniformed attendants hung a quilt square corresponding to that story —- until the whole, stage was awash in colors and textures and messages of love and loss and hope.
3) The Little Dog Laughed by Douglas Carter Beane. City Circle, 2009.
This was my most recent directing experience, under the aegis of City Circle but performed in the Riverside Theatre space on Gilbert St. I love story lines in which every major character is tugged in all directions by professional aspirations, personal loyalties, and suppressed desires. Here we have a Hollywood leading man, a continent away from the woman who loves him and runs his life, falling in love with a male hustler, who is partnered with a woman who’s carrying his baby. This production stands out for the brilliance and hard work of a cast led by Matthew James, Rachel Howell, and Bryant Duffy. Each of them exhausted me (in a good way) with endless one-on-one conferences, as we fleshed out every tiny detail of each character, their fears, their motivations, their underlying strengths and weaknesses. It was also noteworthy as my only directing experience with full frontal nudity and sex on stage. Since we had no access to safe and appropriate rehearsal space, we rehearsed nightly in my bedroom, which was about the same size as the set, had a large bed in the center, and entrance doors on either side. To me, the final outcome was absolutely electric!
2) The Suicide by Nikolai Erdman. University of Iowa, 1986.
This is a 1931 Russian political farce by Nikolai Erdman, which created great controversy at the height of the Stalin era, and has never been produced in the former Soviet Union. It was produced by the UI Theatre Department in Mabie Theatre in the fall of 1986, with a visiting director, Zvone Sedlbauer from the eastern European Communist bloc. I played a major role, that of Communist party leader and intellectual Aristarkh Dominikovich. An unemployed and desperate working-class man threatens to commit suicide; and everyone except his wife encourages him to die, but each has a different cause in mind, motivated by self-interest. This production is memorable for several reasons. I was part of a brilliant cast of theatre faculty, MFA, and undergrad actors, including Todd Ballantyne, Kate Burke, Todd Ristau, and Jacque Hinshaw (Troy). And the costume and set designs by visiting designer Dan Nemteanu were as creative and imaginative as I’ve ever experienced. Our director was gruff and spoke very limited English; so within this exceptional group, we gave each other a lot of creative feedback and moral support. Sometimes an ineffectual director with a first-rate cast can produce stunning results; and this was one of those instances.
1) Bent by Martin Sherman. Iowa City Community Theatre, 1988.
I first encountered this show in its first year on Broadway, and that experience haunted me. People in the audience were openly sobbing, and occasionally screaming out words of hope or anger. My dream, to direct a production, was realized in 1988-89, when it was chosen by Iowa City Community Theatre to be both a local production and an entry into the biennial play festival competitions of the American Association of Community Theatre. The story is set in Germany on the eve of World War II, and follows the life of a reckless gay playboy in Berlin. He and his dancer boyfriend first escape the Nazis, then are arrested and sent to a concentration camp. On the way, Max has to kill his lover in order to have his own life spared. The bulk of the play is set in the concentration camp, where Max reluctantly finds love again with a fellow prisoner — in a circumstance in which they are forbidden to speak or to touch. I remember diving into historical research on events and individuals named in the play, and reading many accounts of the status and fates of gay men in German concentration camps. I wanted everything, down to the costumes, to be historically accurate.
It was my rare good fortune to have found Scott Humeston and Tim Budd (who had just arrived in Iowa City the week of auditions) to play the lead roles. The rest of the cast was uniformly strong. Cary Beatty designed and built imaginative sets, which could serve multiple purposes from scene to scene. The production won “best play” at the Iowa festival in Des Moines in 1989. The Des Moines Sunday Register did a story of almost a full page, with rave reviews from ISU and Simpson College theatre professors and a tribute by John Viars, executive director of the Des Moines Playhouse. Our Midwest tour of BENT ended less happily in Springfield, MO., where the performance was disrupted by a neo-Nazi skinhead biker gang. As a result of the power of this production, I was asked to join the national board of the American Community Theatre Association, and was nominated for “Who’s Who in America: Entertainment.”
We hope you enjoyed reading John’s TOP FIVE. Be sure to leave a comment below and share the post on whatever social media you use. And then check back tomorrow for our youngest contributor’s TOP FIVE!
John Harper first appeared 40 years ago in the ICCT production of “The Great American 4th of July Parade”, playing Thomas Jefferson. Since then, he has acted in, or directed around 75 productions, for UI Theatres, ICCT, City Circle, and Tipton Playhouse. John was a UI English professor for 36 years, and was the department’s specialist in American and contemporary drama. Along the way, he served as president of ICCT and of the Iowa Community Theatre Association, principal founder and president of City Circle, and board member of the American Association of Community Theatre. In “retirement”, John divides his time between homes in Iowa City and Palm Springs, CA., and is still active in theatre in both places.