A Review of Coming of Age in Chore Boots

chorebootsby 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. Continue reading

A review of Walking the Wire: Classified

by Andrew R. Juhl

Iowa City – Riverside Theatre’s Walking the Wire is one annual highlight of the local theatre scene, and for good reason. The performances are often fantastic, the writing is often fresh and multifaceted, and the roiling complements of comedy and tragedy provide a routinely enjoyable evening for audiences of this amaranthine platform.

As in years past, some familiar faces bring great performances to the event, even to the few underwhelming included monologues. And as in years past, the monologues with the most resonance and impact were those performed by their writers. Director Jody Hovland must have realized this to some degree, as she placed a writer-performer at both the beginning and end of the evening. Specifically, she placed the two most baldly autobiographical pieces of the evening (Chris Okiishi’s “Bully for You” and Janet Schlapkohl’s “Valentine Bunnies”) as those bookends, and I applaud this subtle, warranted use of symmetry. The third writer-performer, Ron Clark, imbues his happily-sad, fictitious story with the seemingly effortless gravitas one has come to nearly take for granted after so many years—but never should.

Actress Jessica Wilson should also be highlighted for giving two of—and possibly the single best—performance(s) of the evening. Her skill in bringing to life Alex Dremann’s “Jan-Candy and the Elvis Tattoo” is a comic tour de force, making this monologue a shining light of the evening when it could have been a difficult slog to watch in lesser hands. Similarly, Felipe Carrasco brings necessary energy and enthusiasm to the material in Kent Forsberg’s “Hieronymus Bond, Secret Agent” that—without such energy and enthusiasm—would have made this bluntly comic monologue difficult to appreciate. Finally, actors Andrew Mehegan and Debo Balogun give strong performances in shorter, emotionally-effective monologues, and I enjoyed actress Mary Bryant’s sweet performance of a monologue-that’s-really-an-internal-monologue, the type of which many of us (or at least I) have had from time-to-time about something so ostensibly inert as a suitcase.

If I had a single complaint about the evening, it would be the theme. The trick to creating a night of monologues that revolve around a theme is that all of the monologues have to in some way revolve around that theme. Tautologically simplistic as that statement is, I think Riverside would do well to consider it during their selection process next year. This is the third Walking the Wire I’ve attended, the first I’ve reviewed, and the third time I’ve had this complaint. That is not to say that the monologues selected weren’t wonderfully fun, entertaining, and/or passionately-written; but the argument that each piece fit the theme is stretched paper-thin in some cases. There were at least three of the monologues that struck me as something a submitter had written for another reason, then—upon seeing the Riverside call-for-submissions—shoehorned a few B.S. lines in here-and-there about something being “classified” to fit the theme. I love monologues; I think they’re an amazing showcase for a writer’s talents and an actor’s range, but when doing a showcase of such performances, I’d rather see either a selection of the best submissions period OR the best submissions that strongly adhered to a cohesive theme.

The night almost certainly could have been strengthened by pruning two, possibly even three, monologues from its bushes, but it was an enjoyable evening overall and maintained the goodwill and aplomb that Walking the Wire has built-up over the years.

Snoopy Makes an Admirable Effort

The Cast of Snoopy! The Musical

By Andrew Juhl
Photo By Lily Allen-Duenas

Amana – Snoopy: The Musical is based on the original characters from Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip and is the sequel to You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Written by Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady, with a book by Warren Lockhart, Arthur Whitelaw, and Michael Grace, Snoopy has become a family favorite in the roughly 40 years since its first production. The musical unfolds with a series of variety-style vignettes that contain short skits (many based on—or taken verbatim from—actual Peanuts comic strips), as well as showcase numbers about the characters appearing in the musical.

It’s is a fun bit of fluff, but I found myself underwhelmed by the evening. Perhaps it’s an unavoidable and unfortunate side-effect of adapting a property originally meant for adults but later appropriated by children into a musical aimed squarely at children who must be taken to it by adults. Some loss in translation seems inevitable, and the bygone style of humor featured in the vignettes helps the issue none.

At points, the show seems little more than a random collection of classic (and not-so-classic) Peanuts gags and tropes (very) loosely couched as a story about Charlie’s would-be-author pooch. With the exception of the introductory song, Snoopy’s big number “The Great Writer,” and a little bit of the finale, the show actually has very little to do with Snoopy outside of the occasional snippy comment from the other characters about human-dog relationships. The musical falls on the side of mean and prurient at several times throughout—rather than indelibly good-natured and generationally transcendent, the way Peanuts is often considered.

Ryan Gaffney shines as an enthusiastic and animated Snoopy, and I especially liked his performance during the number “The Big Bow Wow.” Sara Kenny, as Lucy van Pelt, combines just the right amount of brash annoyance and belying camaraderie the character is known for, while Jillian Kuhl, as Sally Brown, plays little sister with equal parts innocence and joy to a dependable Charlie Brown’s (Jeff Haffner). The remaining actors are acceptable and talented, though nobody in the entire cast is given anything particularly meaty over the course of the show. Elijah Jones, as Woodstock, was delightfully ebullient and appropriately physical—though even he began to falter and look tired by the end of the evening.

Director Sean McCall makes good use of the stage and the talent of his actors, while the Peanuts Band provides skilled, quality renditions of the toe-tapping, if unmemorable, music. In fact, much of the production is technically solid, and the Old Creamery Theatre makes as admirable attempt as any company might when translating this family-targeted material to an older audience of married and/or retired couples.

If you have children, they might enjoy the show; but there were very few children in attendance during the performance I witnessed, and all but the very youngest appeared bored and giggled sparingly. Seemingly, only the smallest among them found the production’s bright colors and big voices to be entertaining, though—let’s be honest—that’s not the hardest crowd to win over.

Snoopy: The Musical continues its run through August 10. Tickets available here.

Hay Fever Is an Ideal Summer Treat

By Andrew Juhl

Cedar Rapids – I’ve always considered Hay Fever to be one of Noël Coward’s best comedies. The play is breezy and ultimately trivial, with one-dimensional, self-indulgent characters. Coward himself once remarked that this play had “no plot at all and remarkably little action,” yet Hay Fever continues—almost 90 years after its original debut—to connect with audiences.

Part of its appeal might lie specifically in its aforementioned triviality and simplicity. The play doesn’t make heavy demands of its audiences. There’s nothing to analyze, there’s no real meaning to be found. It can just be watched and enjoyed, like the best mindless summer entertainment. Another appealing aspect, to be sure, are the hapless shenanigans in which its characters continue to find themselves embroiled, which require a strong ensemble, good chemistry, and anything-but-hapless comedic timing.

Retired actress Judith Bliss (Marty Norton) and her novelist husband David Bliss (David Morton) are parents to the equally eccentric Simon and Sorel (Aaron Murphy and Angela Billman). Each member of the Bliss family has, unbeknownst to the others, invited a guest for the weekend — causing there to be quite a full house, much to the chagrin of the housemaid, Clara (Cherryl Moon Thomason). To make matters worse, there aren’t enough rooms for everyone; Clara informs Judith that there isn’t enough food; and each guest is detested by at least one family member. Once everyone has arrived, the guests are ignored by their hosts and flirtations quickly escalate to melodrama and confusion.

Of the guests, I found Kristen Wilcox’s portrayal of the painfully shy flapper Jackie Coryton to be the most memorable — perhaps because she is the only character that generated any actual sympathy. Lindsay Prince’s character, Myra Arundel, is blowsy and described by Judith as a “vampire.” Handsome diplomat Richard Greatham (Matthew James) and Mr. Sandy Tyrell (Jim Kropa) are the male guests, and—along with the females—get caught in compromising positions, misunderstandings, and other flabbergastations. Both James and Kropa brought gut-busting laughter from the audience, either through sly delivery or broad physical comedy.

The star of the night, however, is the put-upon maid, Cherryl Moon Thomason. I had a genuine smile every moment this actress was on stage. Director Jim Kern commands a cohesive and talented cast, as well as provides some interesting surprises that take advantage of Brucemore’s outdoor setting. Grab a bottle wine, a blanket, and your favorite theatre-going companion, then get a ticket to the final weekend of an a excellent production of this hilarious and wonderful play.

Hay Fever continues Thurs-Sat July 17-19 at 8 p.m. Tickets/info available here.

The Sunshine Boys Has a Rough Start

By Andrew Juhl
Photo By Lily Allen-Duenas

David Q. Combs and Richard W. Cox

The story of Neil Simon’s 1972 wistful comedy, The Sunshine Boys, revolves around Willie Clark, an aged-out vaudevillian clinging to a mistaken belief in his own skills and continued relevance. Willie’s agent – and nephew – Ben Silverman persists in the Sisyphean task of finding his uncle gainful work in commercials, only to see Willie continue to lose-out on gigs due to his shoddy memory and lack of interest. As such, Willie spends his days disheveled and in front of a television, ruminating on the decade since the sudden end of his 43-year partnership with Al Lewis, the Abbott to his Costello. Predictably, an opportunity comes along for Ben to reunite Al and Willie, but will the Sunshine Boys be able to overcome their mutual enmity and reconcile, or will they remain foes?

Anyone accustomed to the sitcom tropes that have pervaded comedic storytelling since the time of this play’s inception will see the story’s ups and downs plainly telegraphed, yet it remains a well-written piece for the stage by one of the 20th century’s most intelligent and humorous playwrights. The first act is slow to rise, with the second containing the meatiest interactions and best laughs. As per usual, the set, costumes, lighting, and sound at the Old Creamery Theatre all fit well with the tone of the script, and director Patrick du Laney makes good use of the stage and technical abilities of the venue. With the show’s timing and energy, however, du Laney could have spent a little more effort.

The script itself reads like a vaudeville show, with a strong current of one liners, corny jokes, and physical gags. Unfortunately, the principals portraying Lewis & Clark fell shy of the challenge. David Q. Combs (Willie Clark) is appropriately weary at times, but his lethargy persists throughout the play, dragging down the energy of scenes where a more agile or agitated portrayal might have benefitted the dialogue. On the other hand, Richard W. Cox (Al Lewis) is appropriately dour and untrusting during many of his scenes, but seemingly unsure of his motivation or feelings in several others, lending two levels of vacillation to his portrayal, one in-character, the other out-of. Mooring their combined performance further, the actors had neither the timing nor the lines of their tête-à-têtes and vaudevillian patter suitably memorized during the small, opening weekend performance I attended. During only one scene would this forgetfulness have been forgivable as a character trait, yet even then it was more obviously a fault of the performers than the characters being portrayed. This dismayed me greatly, as I could tell that both Combs and Cox were gifted actors, and the lack of audience buy-in combined with the number of stepped-on/repeated lines was somewhat frustrating.

Shining throughout the show, however, was Sean McCall. McCall’s performance as Willie Clark’s put-upon and increasingly exasperated nephew moved the plot forward. Moreover, it packed the most emotional punch of any scene of the night. When people discuss The Sunshine Boys, most of the discussion centers around Lewis & Clark. Indeed, when one thinks about the play’s major productions, what comes to mind first is are the actors who portrayed the titular elderly duo: Jack Klugman and Tony Randall (Broadway in the 1990s), Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths/Judd Hirsch (West End and LA, recent years), and George Burns and Walter Matthau (the 1975 film adaptation). As such, the play seems to be about these two, and pretty much only these two characters. It is, then, quite the accomplishment that McCall made me (and at least a few others) leave the theatre reflecting that The Sunshine Boys was more a story about an uncle and nephew bonding than a story about two estranged friends finally burying the hatchet.

The other roles in the show are quite small, though all were performed with suitable aplomb. Of special note are the two nurses, Jillian Kuhl and Nikki Savitt—though for obvious and different reasons. These minor characters play minor notes, but they add nicely to the timbre of the story.

Overall, the evening was slightly disappointing—mostly due to the energy and dialogue problems between Lewis & Clark. The script has an eminence of comedy, and the Old Creamery Theatre has a long history of quality in the area, so I have faith that these issues will be resolved in coming performances. At the current ticket price, however, local theatregoers might want to wait until closer to closing weekend to be sure.

The Sunshine Boys plays through June 29 on Old Creamery Theatre’s Main Stage. Tickets and additional info available at the Old Creamery website.

Becky’s New Car Spins Its Wheels

By Andrew Juhl
Photo By Elisabeth Ross

Carole Martin

Iowa City – Becky works hard, and liking her comes easy. In Act 1, anyway. In Act 2… no so much. She’s a woman with a good life that she doesn’t fully appreciate. She’s overly stressed and exasperated, but once she relaxes and begins to enjoy herself, life opens up for her, drops possibilities into her lap, and complicates her relationships to degrees she would have never imagined before loosening her safety belts.

Steven Dietz, the show’s writer, instructs the character of Becky to speak directly to the audience, a routine breaking of the fourth wall that could be either obnoxious or enjoyable, depending on the actress. Luckily for Dreamwell’s production, Carole Martin (Becky) is a fantastically pleasant and identifiable confederate with which the audience is allowed to interact. Her stress is palpable, as are her concerns, consternations, and vacillations.

Not as believable, however, is Becky’s extramarital attraction to Walter, played by Dennis Aska. Aska plays his character with an eccentricity that toes the line of creepiness, but it works well given his mannerisms and delivery. Regardless, there is no moment in the play where Aska or Martin ever believably convey to the audience that there exists any true desire between these characters—romantic, sexual, or otherwise. It turns what should be a likeable, identifiable character into someone whose choices and actions the audience begins to detest.

This failing breeds further audience disregard into nearly all the other relationships of the story. Because the audience is never really all that concerned, vested, or believing in Becky’s wishy-washy philandering, it remains hard to give credence to the idea that there’s any concern for her marriage to Joe (Dennis Lambing); and if this primary relationship doesn’t seem at stake, the secondary relationships—such as those with her son (Spencer Loucks) and coworker (Monty Beal)—are little more than fluffy afterthoughts. This is sad, because both Loucks and Beal have some of the best lines (and best deliveries) of the entire night, and I feel the laughs could have been more boisterous and more frequent if the time between them was fraught with greater tension.

The show’s free-flowing, somewhat manic pace could present a challenge to many directors, but the designed set and stage was expertly utilized by Brian Tanner. Despite a small, cluttered set, the night’s situations and rolling action never seemed too tangled or untidy.

Finally, there seemed to be a lot of line-searching in the evening. This might be a personal peeve, but almost nothing takes me out of the moment as much as when I can tell an actor is actively searching their brain for the correct next line of dialogue. Sometimes actors can feign occasional brainfarts as a character idiosyncrasy, but the evening was chock-a-block with moments where I could tell the people on stage simply didn’t have their lines suitably memorized, and that was disappointing.

Overall, I think Becky’s New Car is an enjoyable comedy; however, this production would have benefited greatly from some additional rehearsal time. There were some truly enjoyable, laugh-out-loud moments, but the space between them might be a little too far for most audience members to drive.

Becky’s New Car runs one more weekend, May 16 & 17 at 7:30 p.m. Ticket information here.

Ring of Fire Burns Bright

By Andrew Juhl
Photo By Lily-Allen Duenas

The cast of Ring of Fire

Amana – Thanks to the fact that my USB drive ate my original review before I was able to submit it, this is the second time I’ve had to write this. That’s oddly fitting, actually, as it made me reconsider a musical that reconsiders the life and songs of Johnny Cash.

I’ve been a fan of Cash for decades. I’m also a fan of trivia, and Cash’s life and songs are a gold mine of fun facts, tidbits, and anecdotes that have served me well during pub quizzes more than a handful of times. There exists an inarguable poetry in Cash’s austere lyrics. The simple sophistication and bluntness of Cash’s lyrics belie their elegant profundity; their simplicity should lead to their dismissal, but their meaning stays with you long after the tunes’ reverberations have faded.

Though much of the story of Cash’s life is more honestly and powerfully covered in Ring of Fire’s cinematic successor, Walk the Line, the performances in the movie are removed from the audience by a much greater degree. Seeing and hearing the songs of Cash performed live on stage by a dais of Johnnybees is a wholly different and enjoyable experience. And whereas the movie spends time on Cash’s highs, it almost perversely delights in lows; Ring of Fire, on the other hand, is far more a celebration of the man and his accomplishments, favoring the moments where he overcame rather than the moments where he came undone.

One of the greatest challenges Old Creamery faces when putting on these non-book musicals is that they need to feel like more than a karaoke night. The audience needs to leave the venue feeling like they paid for a real show, not just a cover band. The loose narrative that strings together Ring of Fire’s songs helps ease the buyer’s remorse somewhat, but the cast of this production is ultimately the aspect that turns thoughts such as I could have just gone to a movie tonight into I’m glad I didn’t just go to a movie tonight.

In some productions of Ring of Fire, the role of “Johnny Cash” is portrayed by 2 or 3 actors portraying Cash along different portions of his career. One notable drawback of that approach is that it deliberately cleaves one character into several distinct performances, often diluting both the character AND those performances. The Old Creamery’s production pulls four actors and two actresses into the fold, all at one point or another portraying some aspect of Mr. Cash. This, somewhat unexpectedly, does not exacerbate the problem of dilution, but rather fuses all six actors into a single role in a surprisingly effective manner. That’s not to say there aren’t a few cracks in the façade, but there are definitely several moments when the vocal or instrumental talents of one performer complement the role of Cash in a way the talents of another performer would have underserved it, and because of this, the whole overall production is strengthened by this tag-team approach to Cash’s portrayal.

Sadly, the character of June Carter Cash is sorely underwritten. And, due to the fact that the actress portraying June (Jessica Bradish) also inhabits the identity and lyrics of Johnny throughout the production, moments wherein she plays June to another actor’s Johnny lack any simulacrum of romantic or emotional chemistry.

That said, Ring of Fire is a perfectly pleasant way to spend a few hours. Bradish nails it when she goes solo and soulful during “Waiting on the Far-Side Banks of Jordan,” as well as during one unexpected and quite enjoyable cameo as a famous Grand Ole Opry personality that I won’t spoil here. For their part, actors Jon Brown, Eric Scott Anthony, and Scott Wakefield do fine impersonations of Mr. Cash, though only Wakefield believably inhabits the gravelly gravitas of Cash’s later-career classics. Chaz’men Williams-Ali is mostly relegated to percussion, but really shines during some of the more bluesy and spiritual ditties, and Kendra Jo Brook makes her fiddle sing throughout the show.

One thing that might disappoint audiences about this show is just how many songs in Cash’s expansive discography they won’t get to hear. But, then again, there are worse things to be said about a musical than “it leaves you wanting more.”

Ring of Fire runs through May 25 on Old Creamery’s Main Stage. More information here.

Get "Relief" From the Winter Blues at Urinetown

By Andrew Juhl

Coralville – This is not a happy musical, indeed. Sure, City Circle’s production of Urinetown: The Musical contains its share of laughs and jocularity, but it’s also tinged with piss and vinegar—so, okay, mostly piss.

Urinetown is a 2002 multi-Tony Award winner from Mark Hollmann & Greg Kotis. Occasionally (and ultimately) tarrying into seriousness, the musical is also replete with puns, guffawish humor, and outright silliness. As an extra treat for the musical lovers in the crowd, the songs shift in tone from scene to scenes, providing pastiches to straight-up parodies of other great Broadway shows, such as Les Miserables, Fiddler on the Roof, Sweet Charity, and Big River, among others.

The story centers on the plight of folks in an urban setting experiencing a 20-year drought. As such, all private toilets have been banned in order to conserve water, requiring citizens to pay steep fees to use amenities or be arrested and sent to—gasp!—Urinetown, a mysterious place that people never seem to return from. When fee hikes are orchestrated by greedy corporate-type Caldwell B. Cladwell (Larry Newman), the young idealist Bobby Strong (Ben Alley) leads a rebellion and kidnaps Cladwell’s beautiful daughter, Hope (Raquel Loya). Hilarity ensues, but maybe not so much that you’ll pee your pants. In general, CCACC’s production of Urinetown is a success. Ben Alley brings a goofy, boyish charm to a role more frequently characterized by rugged, athletic charisma, but he makes it work for him, and admirably. Young Raquel Loya has some pipes, and a faux-coquettishness that will serve her well in many roles to come. Be on the lookout for her in future leading lady roles. Over-shining the leads, however, are Larry Newman and Carrie Houtchins-Witt (as ‘Penelope Pennywise’), who bring practiced voice and comedic talent to their roles that the younger cast members simply cannot match at this point. Specific note should be given to Newman’s ‘Caldwell B. Cladwell’; he brings considerable theatrical experience to his performance, and that polish shone throughout the evening. To me, he was the #1 actor to watch up there.

Per Wiger, as the show’s narrator and Officer Lockstock, was superb; and a tip of that hat should go to the people casting the show, as Wiger’s extreme height offset and sold Becca Goldknopf Anderson’s petite frame and believability as ‘Little Becky Two-shoes’. Their tête-à-têtes were uniformly enjoyable, showering the audience with golden enjoyment.

While the music is good, the main complaint of the night (and gee whiz was it a persistent complaint) from other audience members and myself was that it swallowed too much of the lyrics. I couldn’t tell if the performers were consistently undermic’d, the orchestra consistently overloud, or a painful back-and-forth combination, but I was sad to see so many good, hilarious lyrics go unheard by the night’s theatregoers. I’ve been informed that by Sunday’s matinee, these sound issues had been mostly rectified, so the second weekend’s ticketholders should enjoy the show even more.

Luckily, you don’t need to hear choreography, so regardless of any sound issues, you will see some of the most interesting choreography I’ve seen in a community theatre production in the last few years. Fawn Boston-Halter and Chris Okiishi have blocked some intricate, stunning numbers. The dances add to the songs and story; there’s nothing piss-poor about them.

Ultimately, credit has to go to the director for pulling it all together. Jesse Jensen brings us a good show in a great venue for a fair price. I can only assume the performances are becoming increasingly apt with each show, and the sound and dancing increasingly tighter. It’d be a good way to piddle away a few hours this coming weekend. I just may have to go down to Coralville Center for the Performing Arts and see it again. … Micturate.

Energetic Frog and Toad Cast Delivers

by Andrew Juhl

Mount VernonA Year With Frog and Toad is a delightful family musical that can easily fall flat at the community theatre level. Not so much a linear story as a series of rolling set pieces, the musical requires a cast of energetic performers and a creative production staff. Thankfully, the Mount Vernon-Lisbon Community Theatre has both.

More than any other thing, what sells MVLCT’s production this show is the enthusiasm of its cast. You can tell they’re having a great time, and their enjoyment is infectious.

And though the dialogue, songs, and morals are designed for children to consume and understand, the show is no less enjoyable for adults. There exists enough clever wordplay and you’ll-get-it-when-you’re-older themes (not jokes, but themes) that the adults in the audience often end up laughing harder, louder, and longer than the children.

A true ensemble piece if ever there was such a thing, no one actor or actress deserves to be singled out above the rest. Each and every performer brought something unique and wonderful to the evening. From Randy Dotson’s terribly large performance as a “Large & Terrible Frog” to Mary Morgan-Blacharski’s unerringly upbeat “Mouse” to Braden Rood’s hilariously exuberant “Snail” to Traci Rezabek’s unexpectedly touching “Young Frog” to … well, pretty much everything Kim Benesh did. And, of course, there was Frog (Steve Rezabek) and Toad (Jay Gunn), who were fun and charming throughout.

Directors Laura Werkman and Damon Cole did a fabulous job bringing this warm, pleasant comedy about friendship and life to the stage. If you have children—and even if you don’t—seeing MVLCT’s production of A Year With Frog and Toad this weekend will not be a waste of your time or money. Two more performances remaining – tonight at 7:00 pm and tomorrow at 2:00 pm. For information, go here.

Kitchen Witches Charms the Audience

by Andrew Juhl

AmanaThe Kitchen Witches revolves around Dolly Biddle and Isabelle Lomax, rival cable-access cooking show hostesses who’ve hated each other for over 30 years, ever since Larry Biddle dated Isabelle… but married Dolly. After an unpleasant confrontation puts them together in front of a live audience, however, the network decides to give them their own combined cooking show called “The Kitchen Witches.” Dolly’s long-suffering TV producer and son, Stephen Biddle, does everything he can to keep the dueling twosome on track, but it proves to be an exercise in futility as the Dolly and Isabelle continue to whip up more insults (and ratings) than they do recipes.

Caroline Smith’s The Kitchen Witches is also a bit frustrating. The winner of the 2005 Samuel French Canadian Play Contest, the play itself has an interesting premise that doesn’t always live up to its promise—but nevertheless keeps the audience aroused and engaged throughout.

As expected, Meg Merckens, a co-founder of the Iowa Theatre Artists Company, turns in yet another stellar performance, this time as Isabelle. The weightier role of the two female leads, Merckens does great character work in this play, adding slight and subtle flourishes that round-out what, in the hands of a less-experienced actress, could easily be a two-dimensional role.

Accomplished vocalist Lynne Rothrock is enjoyable as Dolly. I wasn’t so sure I would be able to tolerate Dolly’s alter ego “Babcha” for an entire play, but thankfully her moose-and-squirrel Russian accent goes the way of the dodo very early. Rothrock’s unhurried, stentorian delivery betrays her obvious comfortableness on the stage, and her voluptuous figure visually offsets Merckens’ Isabelle, allowing for the exchange of some truly great invectives.

In the third of the three major roles, Eddie Skaggs performs serviceably as Stephen Biddle. Despite the plot, on which Stephen’s character is integral, the actual role is underwritten compared to the two females, and therefore not nearly as memorable. Had Skaggs overplayed it, it would have been annoying. As-is, he plays it mostly straight; a good personal and directorial choice, and the play was much better for it.

Despite the award-winning script, however, there are some basic problems with the actual play that I’m not entirely sure could have been overcome by the actresses. There some truly great jibes, as well as the inevitable food fight, but the combined physical and written comedy never pulls the play above the plains of forced laughter and into realm of genuine, organic comedy. Additionally and unfortunately, I easily recognized that more than a soupcon of the jokes in this play—culinary or otherwise—were entirely unoriginal. One particularly grating offense came in the form of a dozens-style “yo-mamma” joke that wasn’t even novel when I first heard Jamie Foxx tell it on In Living Color during the early 90s.

Overall though, I would highly endorse viewing this production. Director Thomas P. Johnson and his company do a fantastic job of incorporating and charming the audience, and the ITAC venue is, as ever, a cozy and intimate theatre. The show continues through November 6th.