Today’s TOP FIVE is a little different. Rob Cline has been reviewing shows in the corridor for many years. I thought it would be interesting to have him give us a TOP FIVE from the reviewer’s chair. I think you’ll really enjoy this one. Check it out.
The Top Five series is, I believe, a significant record of the history of the area’s vibrant theater scene. I was honored when Matt Falduto—whose many and various contributions include excellent work as a reviewer—asked me to write an entry for the series based on my nearly two decades spent reviewing shows for a variety of publications. I can’t even hazard a guess as to how many plays and musicals I’ve reviewed over the years, but these five shows stand out in my mind.
The 7 Dwarfs by Kevin Kling. Riverside Theatre, December 1999.
In August of 1999, I started reviewing books for Icon, Iowa City’s alternative newspaper and forerunner of Little Village. That December, I was asked to review a play for the first time. I’d never reviewed a play, but then again, prior to that fall, I’d never reviewed a book, either, so I was reasonably certain I could figure it out. I hadn’t anticipated, however, the odd world of Kevin Kling’s The 7 Dwarfs, in which Snow White’s erstwhile companions have created a religion centered on her, and the challenges inherent in commenting on it.
I was at something of a loss as to what to say about the production, and the resulting review is more synopsis than critical consideration. Nevertheless, the final paragraph shows a bit of promise:
“But for all that, the strong cast, highlighted by Howard and Wesley Broulik as Ed, carries the play over the rough spots. The minimal set—beautifully cast in a symbolic white that offsets the characters’ colorful garb—and the paucity of props add to the cast’s burden, but good ensemble acting keeps the audience engaged in the browsers’ story and amused by their slapstick antics. Kling’s story may be found wanting in its later stages, but the cast members of The 7 Dwarfs work their way to their own happily-ever-after in this postmodern fairytale.”
Corpus Christi by Terrance McNally. Dreamwell Theatre, June 2001.
For the very first issue of Little Village, I reviewed three plays in a single article, which meant I didn’t have much room for any of them. In hindsight, that’s truly too bad, because Dreamwell Theatre’s production of Corpus Christi, directed by Matt Brewbaker, remains one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had in the theater (or, in this case, a Unitarian church basement serving as a theater).
McNally recasts Jesus (known as Joshua in the script) and his disciples as a group of gay men. It would be easy to overplay this set up, but the Dreamwell cast played it straight (as it were), delivering a moving performance I was pleased to praise:
“Corpus Christi is a demanding play, asking most of the 13 actors to drop in and out of a number of different characters throughout the performance. While the play is anchored by the strong performances of [Jeff] Hansen as Joshua and Scot West as Judas, the other actors did a remarkable job capturing the essence of various personas quickly and abandoning them just as rapidly for a new identity. The result was a production by turns humorous, thought-provoking, and tragic. From the opening moments of the production to the final crucifixion scene, Dreamwell’s production was deeply felt theater performed by a talented cast.”
Spring Awakening by Steven Sater with music by Duncan Sheik. Theatre Cedar Rapids, June 2013.
Twelve years after reviewing Corpus Christi, I praised another production as “deeply felt.” The Theatre Cedar Rapids production of Spring Awakening was impressive from beginning to end. I posted to Facebook after the show:
“Instant review of Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of Spring Awakening: Wow.”
I was able to go into greater detail in my review for The Gazette, which read in part:
“Under the direction of Leslie Charipar and the musical direction of Janelle Lauer, an impressive cast delivers a deeply felt performance of a difficult and beautiful show. When considered alongside the many productions I have seen mounted by the Corridor’s varied and talented theater organizations, this performance ranks among the very best.”
That final phrase found its way into promotional imagery for the show. It wasn’t the only time my words have been added to marketing materials for area shows, but it was the most visually striking occurrence.
[PHOTO: Photo by Shannon Peterson; post-production by Len Struttman.]
Constellations by Nick Payne. Giving Tree Theater, August 2017.
“Bend time and space to fit Constellations at Giving Tree Theater into your schedule,” I wrote, leaning hard into the thematic conceit of Constellations’ amazing script—which presents various versions of a couple’s shared reality—for this review. “Jo Jordan and Kyle Shedeck, under the direction of Richie Akers, bring authentic emotion to a complex script by Nick Payne that explores the intersection of love’s fragility and inevitability.”
Presented in the round in the unique and flexible Giving Tree space, this production was splendid, and it’s tempting to just paste the full review into this space. I’ll refrain, but here’s a bit more:
“Jordan and Shedeck are simply captivating throughout the production. The play is performed in the round with the audience close, but the performers are locked into one another in a way that draws us into their intimacy. When they step out of the circle to perform an essential recurring scene unfolding backwards over the course of the play, their intimacy and emotion are heightened further even as thorny questions about immutable destiny are raised by the script and the staging…Here’s the definitive reality of this production: It is masterful work.”
Roar! by various authors. Riverside Theatre, March 2016.
I’m stepping out of the chronology here and changing seats. Thanks to the kindness of Sam Osheroff, then artistic director of Riverside Theatre, I had the opportunity to take my reviewing shtick from the audience to the stage, joining the cast of Roar!—Osheroff’s new name for what would turn out to be the last edition of Riverside’s venerable Walking the Wire monologue show.
I’d been toying with the idea for quite some time. Could I turn the trappings of reviewing—the notetaking, the snarky comments that (usually) don’t make it into the final review, and the like–into a funny and yet substantive piece that could be performed? And could I perform it? Osheroff was willing to take a chance on me, and we sprinkled my appearances among the other monologues in the show.
As a result, I had the disorienting experience of being reviewed myself. James Trainor of Little Village had this to say:
“One piece that repeats throughout both acts is Rob Cline’s “Critical Response” (written by Cline himself). Cline, a local theatre critic, places himself onstage and periodically pipes up to review the audience. It’s a simple but endearing device, and Cline plays it well. He’s at ease interacting with the audience, calling out noted members of the crowd by name and poking light fun at them. Later in the show, the gag continues, but it gets more philosophical. Cline muses on the nature of audience response, from laughter to stunned silence to the question of whether or not a show receives a standing ovation. Peppered between the punchlines are real questions about what it means that we still have a form of art that is so in-person and social.”
The cast and crew of Roar!—many of whom I had reviewed over the years—were so welcoming to me. I know I serve the theater community better from the seats than from the stage, but it was a joy to swap roles and to perform on the very stage where I saw the first play I ever reviewed.
Rob Cline is the director of marketing and communications for the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium. He is also a busy freelance writer with an emphasis on arts and culture coverage. In theory, he is at work on a sequel to his comic mystery novel Murder by the Slice, which received a mostly positive review in 2013.