By Gracey Murphy
Photo by Emily McKnight
Iowa City – Theophilus North.
What a peculiar name for such a peculiar person.
Entering the Iowa City Community Theatre at 7:15 p.m. on a Saturday night, I certainly did not expect to fall in love with a fictional character named Theophilus North.
I honestly had no prior knowledge of Theophilus North before attending this show. However, within minutes I knew this show would be unforgettable. Theophilus North takes the audience on a journey following Theophilus North (Nate Sullivan) to Newport, Rhode Island after he spontaneously quits his job, a fact that greatly displeases his parents.
Theophilus intends to travel the world, but makes a lengthy pit stop in Newport to earn some cash for his travels. There he discovers new friends and improves the lives of those he meets.
What fascinated me most about this play was the small, tight knit cast. Many characters were introduced, but then spent little time on stage. Because of this, the four actors (other than Theophilus) played three to five roles each. To distinguish the difference between characters, they wore different costumes. However, even without the costumes their roles were apparent. The actors did a superb job of developing prominent mannerisms for each character. For instance, the actor Jeff Emrich played the role of a grungy mechanic, then later transformed into a posh elderly man who had not left the house for seven years. He accomplished this dynamic switching by completely changing his attitude to fit the dissimilar characters.
The character switches happened quickly in this show, too. Often these switches occurred immediately after vacating the stage. Portraying the varying ages of the characters, accents, and body language must have been difficult to achieve, but each actor thoroughly impressed me. They were absolutely phenomenal.
As for Theophilus North, Sullivan never abandoned the stage—literally and figuratively. Sullivan had to carry Theophilus’s enthusiastic, positive energy from the beginning to the end of the show. Though in every scene, Sullivan did not allow himself to falter from his chipper role. The exuberance Sullivan portrayed made his one moment of sadness all the more poignant.
Overall this play was heartwarming and emotional, but it was also funny. With quick-witted humor and subtle jokes I found myself laughing often. The playwright, Matthew Burnett, incorporated numerous asides and soliloquies in this play. Most times these humorous lines came from Theophilus himself, but occasionally another character would surprise the audience with their own aside, which delivered more humor.
Brett Borden portrayed a character named Charles Fenwick, a 16 year old with the mindset of a 10 year old. Theophilus attempts to mature Charles by coaching him in French. The scenes between these two men were particularly hilarious. At one point, the two spent an entire scene speaking nothing but French. My knowledge of French is limited to bonjour, but I know enough to say they spoke eloquently and beautifully through the entire scene. They devoted time to make the most of their roles, even when the audience couldn’t understand them, and it showed.
The stage had few set pieces. Most scenes were created by black boxes and the actors. In a sort of reverse personification, places and things were portrayed by actors. When traveling to Newport, the title character rode with Hannah (his car) which was played by a person. Different parts of Newport were visualized by the actors’ descriptions. The only real prop used was a makeshift bike Theophilus rode.
Theophilus really met a great number of fascinating people in Newport. The actors have an amazing connection that makes these friendships all the more endearing. While viewing the show, I could tell the actors had mastered working together. One of the most admirable scenes is when Theophilus, a pregnant woman named Myra Granberry (Kristina Rutkowski), and her maid re-enact scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. Originally, Myra despised Shakespeare, but through the play she grows to love him thanks to Theophilus.
This play evoked emotion and captivated me for its full two hours. A single tear trickled down my cheek as Theophilus fulfilled his quest for purpose and adventure. With a simple (and super cheesy) metaphor about friends being constellations, the show ended on a lighthearted note. Theophilus North is great for all audiences so if you’re free this weekend, I strongly recommend viewing this show. The acting alone will astonish you; you will not be disappointed. ICCT’s “Theophilus North” runs through December 13th.