by Andrew Juhl
Iowa City – Janet Schlapkohl is a great storyteller. She’s a great storyteller when she’s portraying other people, real or imagined, and she’s possibly even a greater storyteller when she’s portraying her own life events. In Coming of Age in Chore Boots, Schlapkohl’s autobiographical one-woman show, she connects key moments in her life with world events, most notably the Vietnam War and the 1980s farm crisis.
First performed in 2013 at Riverside Theatre (a review of that production is here), the current Riverside Theatre production reunites writer/star (Schlapkohl) with the director (Tim Budd) and lighting/sound designer (Drew Bielinski) of the original. I was not able to see the 2013 production, but from discussions with those who had, the current production is a very slight update, remaining predominantly unchanged. Because why mess with greatness? The staging is so fluid and lighting/sound so expertly cued that it reminded me of the best way to apply makeup: when done right, you don’t even notice it. At no point was I prompted to inwardly say, “That was a weird choice” or “Not sure I would have brought the lights down there.” Thanks to “all the little people” the night felt organic and wholly owned by its star, as a one-woman show should feel.
In turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, Schlapkohl’s acting provokes every emotion from nostalgia to bereavement to joy to optimism. You can watch her expertly play a younger version of herself learning a hard life lesson, then witness her seamlessly transform into present-day Janet reflecting on how that experience either impaired or fortified her resolves in subsequent years. It’s the type of performance you can only truly experience by observing someone telling their own story in their own words.
Unfortunately, that story is a bit uneven. Some of the ties made to world events—specifically the Vietnam War—were too tangential to be effecting. Similarly, the throughline repetition of the phrase, “Get back. Pay attention. Hold on.” felt shoehorned into the script as a method of stringing several monologues together into a larger narrative. While each of those monologues works well on its own, their strung-together nature leaves the first act feeling over dramatic (especially in relation to the much breezier, funnier second act), and this results in the closing minutes of the evening feeling rather abrupt and anticlimactic.
Overall, it’s a show worth seeing, and I can see why it’s already back for another run at Riverside. I had an enjoyable evening watching a well-made piece of locally-crafted theatre expertly performed in one of the most welcoming and intimate venues in the cultural corridor.