by David Pierce
Iowa City – The 37th Annual StarCon of Eastern Iowa, the region’s premiere science fiction convention, is going on this weekend in Exhibition Hall B on the Johnson County Fairgrounds. This year’s amazing lineup promises events including a costume contest, a talent show, a romance between feuding families, and the heist of a famous artifact. Okay, the heist of a kickball wrapped in gold foil.
Lived in the area a long time and have never heard of StarCon? Relax. There really isn’t a StarCon. Rather, it’s the newest production from Combined Efforts Theatre.
Combined Efforts is, as the mission statement in the program informs us, Iowa’s only visual and performing arts company with a mission of purposeful collaboration between people with and without physical and mental disabilities. But in addition to this collaboration between people, a Combined Efforts show is also a collaboration between artistic disciplines. Combined Efforts has a theatre company, a dance company, and a men’s choir as well as a writing group and a visual arts group.
All of those elements are usually on display in a Combined Efforts production. StarCon is no exception. The theatre, dance, and singing groups perform together not in the traditional sense of a musical, but as separate and distinct performance elements within a performance. Again, StarCon is no exception.
Indeed, StarCon is the first full-length play conceived and written by the Combined Efforts Writing Group. Jessica Wilson oversaw the writing process and Elijah Jones directed the finished product.
Jones and his set design team made some wonderful choices regarding the staging of the show. Exhibition Hall B feels like the sort of bare bones hotel conference rooms, right down to crappy overhead lighting, that most small cons take place in. Black curtains courtesy of Sound Concepts of Cedar Rapids help shrink the size of the room while also allowing for better sound for the audience. The walls surrounding the ‘con’ floor have displays of comic book art that consist of pages from split up comic books as well as some original artwork from the Combined Efforts Visual Art Group.
As someone who has collected comic books for over four decades, it made my heart sink to see the books broken up and displayed that way. As an audience member for this show, it made for another nice touch resembling as it did the ever-present comic book art you see on display at any con.
The show opens at the hotel hosting the con. Hotel employees Dante and Randall (yes, it’s a Clerks reference) greet the guests as they arrive. The first to do so are the wealthy Montegooster family, consisting of patriarch Smedley (Ken Gayley, who delightfully mugs his way throughout the show in a deliberately over the top performance), the world’s biggest Star Track fan, second wife Kitty (Heather Johnson, clearly having fun playing the evil – well, not so much evil as self-absorbed – stepmother), and goth son Darwin (Jesse Everhart, who charms the audience with a sweet naïve performance as a teen boy finding first love) who is only at the con to please his father so his father will grant him his wish for a hearse.
Next to arrive are the DeCapulets, a family of Star Warriors fanatics led by Grandma (Evie Stanske giving her usual strong performance), her son Mark (Kalvin Goodlaxson, doing double duty here as a member of the Combined Efforts Writing Group in addition to giving a solid performance onstage), and his wife and children, among then teen daughter Juliet (Brenda Wall, who steals every scene she is in) who is only at the con so she can get permission to go camping. We also meet a quartet of crooks, all members of the Combined Efforts Men’s Choir, led by Jon (Erik Schneider, who has a nice touch for comedy) joined by Matt (Iver Hovet), Patrick (Spencer Rideout), Sylvester (Corey Rew), and at times by accomplice Nicholas (Michael Levy)
Also along for the con are a trio of off-kilter celebrity talent show and costume contest judges (Jane Bradbury, Ralph Canapa, and Jeff Emrich); public television on-air talent (Mark Nidey and Bob Shaffer); various Star Warrior and Star Track fans; and the mysterious Galatea (Ruby Murray) who knows all about everything, particularly cult TV show Lightning Bug. Oh and the glowing gold orb, an important artifact in Lighting Bug canon and the grand prize in the talent contest.
What follows from a plot standpoint is probably pretty easy to figure out. The two disenchanted teens meet and fall in like. The crooks try to steal the orb. The feuding families face off against each other but then team up to rescue the orb.
But a Combined Efforts production is less about the ‘what’ of creation or the ‘how’ of creation and more about the act of creation itself. It’s about participation as a radical act, about giving voice and an outlet for expression to those who normally would not have one. Most local theatre companies at least pay lip service to inclusion but none of them live it the way Combined Efforts does. None of them make it as central to their existence as Combined Efforts does.
A Combined Efforts production is truly a communal event that can best be described as heartwarming. There is a back and forth energy at any good theatrical performance, energy flowing from the audience to the stage and then back again. But that energy never really, well, combines in the way it does at a Combined Efforts production. Most of the time there is a wall between audience and performers. That wall does not exist at a Combined Efforts production, with the audience becoming as important an element in the show as the performers.
StarCon, as I said before, is no exception. Everyone on stage is having a good time. You can see it in their eyes, on their faces. You can see it when they get a laugh or mug for the audience, or give themselves over to the role they’re playing. You can feel it in the smile on your own face, or the joy as you applaud
I could nit pick about this production if I wanted to do so. For instance, it would have been nice for the Men’s Choir to get a couple more songs. Likewise, I wish the Dance Company had gotten another number. But again, it’s not about the how or the what as it is about the creation. StarCon’s performers are having more fun than you see in most any other production. The audience is along with them in a way that doesn’t exist in other stage productions. StarCon should not be missed. You’ll leave with a warm glow. that is all too rare to find these days.