Year-End Wrap-Up!

As the year draws to a close, we at the Iowa Theatre Blog have gotten to reminiscing about the past 12 months. We’re sure you have, too! So, we invited our reviewers to talk to us about their “best of” choices for 2014. It was a fun process: usually, we restrict what our reviewers can comment on. No one can review a show that a company they’re affiliated with has produced, for example. Here, though, we gave them free reign to talk about what caught their attention, what moved them, what huge successes they saw in Corridor theatre in the year 2014. We hope you’re as excited as we are to read the results! Also, we’d LOVE to hear what YOU think on the matter! Sound off in the comments here, or on FB, or Twitter… or just start the conversation at your favorite NYE party 😀 What excited YOU about local theatre in 2014? What gave you hope for 2015? Read our reviewers’ thoughts after the jump…

Matt Falduto – Choosing a ‘show of the year’ is more than a little difficult. We are fortunate to have so many wonderful theatres in the Corridor producing so many amazing shows. I finally narrowed it down to two shows. One was the finest production I saw all year. The other was an excellent production, too, but more than that, I want to spotlight a company that is filling a new niche in our community.

Ruben Lebron and Felipe Carrasco; photo by Bethany Horning

Dreamwell’s The Whipping Man was a devastatingly human portrayal of one of the darkest times in our history – The Civil War. Rich Riggleman’s set was excellent, even suggesting a staircase to a second level in a space with 9 foot ceilings. Rachael Lindhart’s expert direction brought out amazing performances from the three actors – Roe Lloyd, Felipe Carrasco and Ruben Lebron. Like reviewer Mathew R. Kerns wrote, “These men have forged a powerful ensemble and their work is not to be missed.” To me, this is theatre at its best – an intimate, powerful performance that touches the heart and forces us to ask questions. As Kerns wrote, The Whipping Man was “A must see.”

My second choice for show of the year is Dogfight, by the newest company in the Corridor, Revival Theatre Company. This group is an excellent addition to the theatre landscape as they’re focusing specifically on musicals – both contemporary rare gems as well as the classics. Their first season includes Dogfight, one of the rare gems, and Pippin, a definite classic. Dogfight was excellently performed and well directed. The music was fun and lively at times and terribly moving when necessary. Most of all, I had the definite impression that this company knows itself and what they want to accomplish as part of the Corridor arts scene. They are a theatre company to watch, no doubt about it.

Sharon Falduto – I wanted to mention a couple of shows, both of which happened early in the year, and both of which dealt with the racial issues that were so prevalent in the U.S. at the end of the year.

Dreamwell’s Whipping Man was smart and heartbreaking and wonderful, and TCR’s For Colored Girls was necessary and powerful and also wonderful.

I saw a lot of other great theater, too, but those are the ones I want to mention this year.

The cast of for colored girls…; photo by Len Struttmann

Genevieve Heinrich – It seems so self-serving to call out for colored girls… as a “best of” for 2014, since I was in it… In part, that’s why it ranks, for me – it was absolutely one of the best theatre experiences I have ever had as a performer. Larger than that, though, is the impact it has had on the community. Almost a year later, I still hear stories about how much the show affected people. I still get strangers coming up to me talking about how moved they were. It’s a startling work that deserves to be done more often, and I can’t begin to say how proud I am to have been part of a troupe that did it so well.

When I think about the shows that I’ve been in the audience for this year, the one that shines brightest in my memory is a small piece that I’m not sure many people saw. Ragged Ascent, by Mike Moran (aka The Iowa Goatsinger), was a stunningly generous piece of original theatre. The CR-IC corridor sees an amazing amount of locally-written work; none of it is perfect of course – we are so blessed to be seeing this amazing art in what is essentially its workshop phase, sitting with audiences for the first time. Ragged Ascent was simply beautiful, from concept to creation, and I’m very lucky to have seen it. I hope it goes far.

I’d like to add that while, sadly, I didn’t get to see it myself, Working Group Theatre’s Out of Bounds is the only time that my 12 year old has come home from a show and immediately started texting her friends to tell them that they simply HAD to see it. It is the #1 piece this year that I am heartbroken to have missed, and I applaud WGT’s ability to speak truth to so many segments of the population.

Rachel Korach HowellOf Mice and Men – Jaret [Morlan]’s work as Lenny was better than anything I’ve seen. He stole the show. It was magnificent. The ensemble work was also truly wonderful, not just to watch, but to be a part of. A simple classic, something everyone knows, and one most people are afraid of… It’s hard to feel.

Hannah Spina, Rachel Howell, Genevieve Heinrich;
photo by Len Struttmann

Much Ado – The simple fact that 4th Rm does free theatre like this is essential to the community and should be celebrated. No one else does this and the quality of the show was wonderful as well. Making Shakespeare approachable is important and seldom achieved. I think they (we) did that. It’s not the heaviest Shakes, and it’s not the most comfortable of settings, but still… WOW. The talent, the location, the concept… all really great.

Out of Bounds – Again, the work this company [Working Group] does is singular and essential. It’s giving theatre a new purpose (or perhaps, simply a forgotten one?) and bringing important topics to the stage in the “guise” of entertainment, allowing the hard truths to penetrate a little easier. The topic at the front of this really marked me, having a daughter myself… made me question how we talk about these things… how do we protect her… can we begin to try to protect her? The cast wasn’t 100% across the board, and the script still needs to buff out some dings, but it was more than enough to drive the show home. And the shadow work was super awesome to watch.

Matthew Kerns – For me, the best show of last year was the one I worked on with the indelible Angie Toomson and the fiercely brave and talented ladies of the Rainbow. For Colored Girls… opened the eyes of her myriad of watchers to a style of play rarely seen in these parts. She afforded stories to our community that were diverse in nature yet universal in experience. She moved unlike anything else witnessed on any other stage at TCR or the like and she made joy and pain communal as the gifted ladies of our cast ebbed and flowed through her poetry.

One audience member said to me, “I don’t know what was yours and what was Angie’s…” I say, yes! Our work as director and choreographer melded so easily together when we built the piece with the ladies that the shows harmonies played as tightly as a Simon and Garfunkel song on a cloudy day.

The technical aspects were simple and elegant.

The production a dream.

I loved it. I am proud of it AND it is my favorite work of last year.

James E. Trainor III – I would pick Colored Girls by far.

This is the type of show that is very challenging for a community theatre, which is a shame because it’s a piece that needs to be seen by as many people as possible. This is as true today as it was forty years ago, and TCR’s production brought the inherent life out of this poignant text. For Colored Girls was marked by great direction, great choreography, great design, honest and memorable performances from the actors. TCR would be doing a great service to the community if it continued to use its studio space to produce powerful, relevant theatrical offerings.

K. Michael Moore – I’m nearly incapable of choosing a favorite anything, regardless of criteria… therefore:

Kalvin Goodlaxon, Rip Russell, Iver Hovet, Bob Shaffer;
photo by Emily McKnight

I think theater in the Corridor started changing this year – shows like For Colored Girls… at TCR, the consistent work of WGT and Combined Efforts in particular: these, as well as others, began (or have been) really using theater and performance to create discussion in the community. The impact of this method of theater cannot be overstated, but is often quite rare in community theater. We are starting to see it more and more – productions mounted, not strictly for entertainment, but for incitement, conversation, and community.

There were a lot of great shows in 2014. We are blessed to have so much theater happening that we can’t see everything, be in everything. But I’m proud that our community is embracing theater for more than just entertainment (which is also a wonderful thing!).

Many thanks to YOU, our community, for reading and engaging and LOVING theatre in 2014! We’ll see you onstage and online in the new year!

Red Is a Work of Art

By James E. Trainor III
Photo courtesy Fourth Room Theatre

L-R: Richard Glockner, Matthew James

Cedar Rapids – There’s a small print of an old Rothko hanging near the circulation desk in the library at West High. Whenever I walk past it, I find myself trying to imagine what the students think of it. Do they feel drawn in, madly curious about who the man was and what he meant by this? Or do they merely give it a cursory glance while Facebook loads, and then go back to their phones? To me, the carefully arranged rectangles of color seem out of place, archaic, desperately alone, in need of perhaps a paragraph of text off to the side explaining, giving them context. I often feel this way with the Abstract Expressionists: I feel left out, like I missed the joke, like I’m not smart or sensitive enough to “get” it. It makes me wonder: are we losing something irreplaceable when a great master dies and his work begins to fade? Or are the next Rothkos wandering the halls of our high schools this very moment, thinking in movements and forms we can’t even dream of?

In John Logan’s Red, which deals with the death and birth of art movements, we have Rothko resurrected to explain his work to us. In Fourth Room’s production, directed by Angie Toomsen, Rothko (Richard Glockner) sets his assistant Ken (Matthew James) center stage and explains to him how the paintings work. It’s through James’ character work that we see the effect of Rothko’s paintings and his pontifications; Ken, bored and irritated at the onset, grows first tense, then excited, then chatty and enthusiastic as the master describes his masterpiece. Through Glockner’s work we see that Rothko is equally excited; as he ages and watches the world outgrow him, he desperately needs someone to understand why art matters. This theme of the passing of the torch, and the push and pull of different generations, is very prevalent in Red, and some careful relationship work from Glockner and James makes it effective here.

At the top of the play, Rothko is the godfather of modern art, and Glockner’s massive stage presence shows it. We hear Rothko before we see him, Glockner’s voice filling the space and ringing off the walls. He lurks in the shadows as James strains, trying to get the most out of the painting in front of him. Like Ken, we feel a little intimidated, a little overwhelmed. We are in the presence of a master, and he’s keen to let us know it. Glockner is a blast in these early scenes; he’s very playful in the role, making what is basically a lecture on art history and culture a joy to listen to. When he rattles off lists of the greats, every name is imbued with its own character, its own significance. He is brash, humorous, and above all, lofty. He gives us the central question of the piece as a professor gives the topic of his lecture: is the next generation worthy to stir the paints of those who have gone before?

This interaction is very one-sided, and deliberately so; Glockner assaults James with rhetorical questions, James attempts to engage, Glockner takes off on a tangent before he can respond. In these simple moments, they find a lot of humor in the piece, and they also give us an excellent sense of Rothko and Ken: Rothko a brilliant but lonely old man who desperately needs to share what he knows, and Ken a needy young man who’s willing to tolerate it all to be accepted. In these opening moments, Glockner and James lay a lot of groundwork to make what follows more effective.

As time goes on, Ken begins to stand on his own, though Rothko doesn’t really notice it. It all comes to a head when the Pop Art movement threatens to dethrone the Abstract Expressionists, as the Abstract Expressionists stomped out the Cubists. It’s a natural progression, one that Rothko himself outlined earlier: the son must kill the father and take his place. Here, however, he doesn’t want to hear it, it’s all crap, garbage, trivial, and Ken needs to shout to be heard. It shows us the problem with teaching anything, with passing anything on: do we ever actually listen to our kids? See what they’ve picked up, what they’ve discarded? Or are we too full of our own self-importance, sure we’ve got it right? It takes Ken to show Rothko what he’s really been doing: dragging his feet for two years working on a huge commercial commission that he doesn’t want to complete. When he finally accepts this, he can let the money go and move on — but of course, then he doesn’t need Ken anymore. Glockner shows us some great character growth in these moments; he somehow manages to be arrogant and apologetic at the same time, and the intimacy is made more potent by the fact that it is painful and awkward.

The story we’ve heard before — the apprentice has proved himself and can step off into the world — but it’s the dance of generations, and the intense conflict of aesthetics, that makes Red so fascinating. Logan centers much of the conversation around Rothko’s favorite book, The Birth of Tragedy, in which (to oversimplify) Nietzsche tells us that all art is a struggle to find the balance between two internal forces — passion and intellect. This metaphor fits with the American culture at the time; we see a society desperately trying to find the balance within itself. Pop Art, Ken insists, is needed because people in 1959 are tired of pretension and seriousness. They need something of-the-moment, disposable. In essence, they need an escape, a break. They’ve had a little more Rothko than they can handle. They need someone to tell them everything’s going to be okay. On the other hand, Rothko reminds us, everything is certainly not okay. As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the Cold War churns on, America is more conflicted and contradictory than it has ever been. It would be easy to dismiss Rothko as a grim old man, but we should never forget the things he has seen: this is a man who lived through not only two World Wars, but a bloody revolution in his own country.

So what is art for? To comfort us, or to sober us? At rare inspired times, it can do both, and Red does that well. Rothko and Ken represent opposite ends of the spectrum, but they share their love of the form. The actors do a wonderful job fleshing out these two and drawing us into their lives, and Toomsen underlines the big questions in the way she drives the piece. It makes the night a perfect balance; something that makes you laugh and enjoy yourself, but also makes you sit up and take notice.

The layout at CSPS is great for an intimate two-hander like this. Designer Scott Olinger eschews the proscenium stage, instead putting up a three-quarter thrust on the floor. Down left is the table used to mix paint, very close to the audience, where the smell of paint is very potent. Some pieces of the studio are actually behind the audience, which adds to the authenticity, making us feel we’re in the middle of the action. When James ducks into the corner to get paint, Glockner turns toward him, and consequently toward us. Large open frames hanging over the audience leave us to imagine the paintings in progress, as well as helping to keep sightlines open. This sort of setup gives a lot more potential than traditional staging, and Toomsen makes great use of it.

Red is now closed, having made the trip from Waterloo to Cedar Rapids, but I encourage you to keep an eye out for Fourth Room’s future offerings. Instead of filling in slots of a predetermined “season,” Fourth Room picks shows on a project-by-project basis, freeing them to select shows that drive them to fully commit to the work. Check here for news and updates.

Cat Clings on By Its Claws

By James E. Trainor III
Photos by Emily McKnight

Rachel Korach Howell and Aaron Weiner

Iowa City – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of Tennessee Williams’s most iconic plays. Set on a southern plantation in the middle of the 20th century, it tells the story of Brick (Aaron Weiner), who drinks to avoid his family, his past, and his conflicted sexual identity. His sexually frustrated wife Maggie (Rachel Korach Howell) must keep his head above water as his squabbling family threatens to disinherit him. It is a whirlwind of a drama, delivered in three powerful acts, and it is a challenge for any community theatre. Iowa City Community Theatre’s production of Cat (directed by Brett Borden) manages to stay on the roof – thanks mainly to the acting chops of Weiner and Howell.

Howell is charming as Maggie. This is a difficult character who starts with two strikes against her: not only is she forced to deliver most of the exposition by herself (as Brick sulks and drinks and utters short grunted responses), but her attitudes about the others in the house and her general cattiness mark her as angry and jaded far too early in her life. In Howell’s hands, this text is believable and organic; she’s done the character work, and we see a bitterly chatty society woman who’s clawed her way up the ranks and isn’t about to let a little thing like a loveless marriage stop her. Moreover, she understands that a Williams play is a very musical affair. She’s fun to listen to because she revels in the language, the endearing Southernisms, the too-precious metaphors, the silken rhythms. Though Cat is ultimately a tragedy, Maggie brings a lot of fun to the piece, and Howell executes this well.

Weiner is an excellent scene partner. Brick is a man who has given up and seems content to let others define him, so he spends a lot of the time drinking and seething, listening to others’ winding monologues. Weiner is very tuned in, and when he does speak, it’s with purpose and clarity, and you can tell that he has really let what his partner said sink in. He seems to be pushing the internal struggle a little hard early on, but later in the piece, it comes out with ease and feels totally natural. Brick started on his drinking jag after the death of his dear friend Skipper, who confessed his love to him and was rejected. Skipper drank himself to death quickly after that phone call, and Brick hasn’t let the matter rest in his own mind. Ironically, both his wife and his father (Scott Humeston) are casually accepting of the fact that Skipper was gay, and it’s only Brick who’s disgusted and tormented by the implications. Though Brick’s own sexuality is never quite clear in this production, Weiner’s scenework is solid, and the anger and the confusion he displays bring us further into the world of the play.

Scott Humeston and Aaron Weiner.

The rest of the acting is competent, but lacks a little clarity and focus. Humeston’s Big Daddy certainly makes his presence felt, which is important, but in his scene with Brick there’s a lot of wandering around and talking to the air; rarely, if ever, is an important line delivered directly to his partner with all the energy and purpose it deserves. A lot of objective play is unclear here, and while the text itself makes sense and connects to the rest of the play, the delivery feels more like the proclaiming of anecdotes than the undertaking of an important conversation that’s driving the story. There’s a bit of this throughout the ensemble, actors either walking on without clear purpose or overacting to denote why they’re on stage. However, Jeffrey Allen Mead deserves special mention for his Gooper; he’s believable — and quite funny — as the jealous, conniving brother of Brick.

Borden’s direction should have been able to address this in rehearsals, because the shape of the thing is largely there. The relationships are all clear in broad terms, but lack detail, little moments that make these feel like real people. Often actors shift to a new beat or tactic with no outside impetus, which cuts into the flow of the thing. These bumps could be cleaned up with a little close scenework, and indeed, ICCT’s Cat is almost there.

If you’ve never had the privilege to see this play, you should check it out. It’s a wonderful script, and ICCT’s production features some great acting. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs October 31 to November 9 at the Johnson County Fairgrounds. More information here.

Red an Intriguing Mix of Heady and Visceral

Jim Van Valen and Christopher Peltier

By James E. Trainor III
Photo By Bob Goodfellow

Iowa City – Upon walking into Riverside during its current production of John Logan’s Red, one is first struck by how the stage looks like a working art studio (set design by Kevin Dudley). Strike that: it is a working art studio. During the course of the one-act play, the actors have a lot of stage business centered around painting: mixing paint, putting together canvases, priming, cleaning. I mention this because Red is a lofty play, full of big ideas, and it would be easy to get lost in the cerebral realm of talking about art. So much the better that the actors have this great set to play with, so they can get their hands dirty with the messy, gut-wrenching business of making art.

Red tells the story of the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko (Jim Van Valen) and his young assistant Ken (Christopher Peltier). Rothko is at the height of his fame, but he is losing patience with the commercial art world; the action of the plot has him struggling to create a mural for the newly-build Four Seasons restaurant. Van Valen’s Rothko is soulful and intriguing; he really transforms into this man who, though a giant in his own time, was more and more an artifact in the swiftly-changing New York of the late 1950’s. Van Valen’s passion and nuance as Rothko comes to realize his time has passed is part of what makes this piece so effective.

Ken is hired as Rothko’s assistant. The irascible Rothko insists he isn’t an art teacher or a father figure, but that’s exactly what he becomes. In his emphatic rants, he tells Ken how artists must always search for truth, and must be willing to ruthlessly challenge what came before. Trouble is, the Pop Art movement is keen on taking down the Abstract Expressionists, just as the Abstract Expressionists humiliated and obviated the Cubists and the Surrealists. Ken, though he hardly has the courage to say it, is aligned with the Pop Art movement, and as both men are fiercely committed to their aesthetics, it becomes a struggle about more than art — it’s about personal identity, dominance, and, in the end, fragility and mortality.

Peltier plays the status shifts in the piece very well. He begins the play cowed, intimidated, watching every step, eager to please and afraid to anger. He soaks in all of Rothko’s well rehearsed rants (Peltier is a great scene partner because he’s an excellent listener). But when the tables are turned, he takes the stage and we see Rothko deflated. We see the dignity and passion of a young artist engaged in something totally new. Peltier plays the part with humor and pathos, and it’s fun to watch him create this character.

Sam Osheroff’s direction guides the actors through this fast-paced two-hander. Van Valen and Peltier are both engaged fully in this world and in this story, and Osheroff must be as well, because his ear for text is very strong. The music of the words flows through the piece, and it is a pleasure to drink in. He also uses the space very well. One moment in particular was very absorbing: Rothko and Ken, continuing their ongoing conversation about art and philosophy, build and hang a canvas to be primed. Solemnly they stop talking, put on a record, and swiftly and energetically paint the thing. It’s exciting to watch, and it adds a lot to the verisimilitude of the staging, as we have a visual reminder how a fresh coat of paint, over time, will dry and become sterile and fixed, just like an artist’s inspiration. Osheroff pays attention to both the structure and the thematic weight of Red, and it pays off.

Red plays through September 28 at Riverside Theatre, 213 N Gilbert St. More information here.

Trubblesume Tymes a Frolicking Evening

Iowa City – Combined Efforts’ summer shows would not be what they are without the beautiful location that is the Country Camp, a small farm at the edge of Iowa City that is an ideal setting for promenade theatre. Nature blessed the company of Trubblesume Tymes at the Faire with a beautiful breezy night tonight, not too hot and not too cold, the perfect weather to appreciate a nice night in the country with the fun set pieces that make up Tymes. Equally important are the people themselves; at Combined Efforts everyone is included, and this cast has a very warm feeling, welcoming the crowd in, singing and making jokes, brimming with the fun of performing. The people and the place combine to make Tymes something halfway between community theatre and a local Renaissance Fair.

The piece runs less than an hour, and is very active as scenes switch between locations and we meet the various zany characters of the Faire. You’ll meet, for example, the cantankerous Queen (Britte Garrett), her put-upon consort (Derek Johnson), an amusing Town Crier (Bob Shaffer, who has a real knack for comic timing), a trio of clowning washerwomen, and a quintet of “Little Men” (stalked around by Sarah Bender as Shakespeare, trying to steal their puppet plays). Tymes, directed by Jason Grubbe and Janet Story Schlapkohl, is full of humor and whimsy, and is performed well by this energetic cast of players.

Not only are there comic set-pieces, but there is plenty of music (traditional numbers and original pastiches), action (a very lively and hilarious joust), and a great big wedding dance (spoilers!) at the end. So head on down to the farm and enjoy a relaxing night out with Trubblesume Tymes at the Faire.

Trubblesume Tymes at the Faire plays again tomorrow night at The Country Camp, 3418 Osage St SW in Iowa City. More information here.

Treat Yourself to Riverside’s Othello

Kelly Gibson, Tim Budd, Daver Morrison

By James E. Trainor III
Photo by Bob Goodfellow

There’s no pleasure quite so simple and magical as sitting in the park by the river on a lovely summer night, where a cool breeze cuts the heat and the sun slowly recedes to reveal a beautiful night sky. Such a night in the park would be refreshing enough without a company of skilled actors performing an Elizabethan bedtime story for the crowd. This weekend, the beautiful language of Shakespeare’s Othello combined with a beautiful night to make magic happen, reminding one why we still do outdoor Shakespeare after all these years. Sometimes, when the company does its work and the stars are aligned, art and nature coincide, and magic happens. Such is the case with this production, due partly to the incredible piece of literature that is the text, but owing no small sum to Theodore Swetz’s focused directorial eye and Tim Budd’s captivating performance as Iago.

The play, as Shakespeare’s other “great tragedies,” has a very ritualistic feel, and this production brings that out brilliantly. The story itself is deceptively simple: an ambitious but thwarted ensign, Iago, plots revenge on his general (Othello, played by Daver Morrison), by manipulating circumstances to make it appear that Othello’s wife, Desdemona (Kelly Gibson), is sleeping with his lieutenant Cassio (Steven Marzolf). This little revenge play becomes so much more with Shakespeare’s artistic touches however, and much of that revolves around the character of Iago. In Iago, Shakespeare raises the silly old stock character of the Vice (the devil in medieval morality plays who gets to talk to the audience) to a high art: we see the living embodiment of duplicity and destruction in Iago’s soliloquies, and in between we get to see him manipulate everyone in Cyprus to perform in his plot against Othello. There’s a perverse sort of fun in watching these proceedings; like any good devil, he tempts us to be on his side.

Swetz does not shy away from the suggestion that Iago is channeling the capital-D Devil but embraces it fully, without camp and with a reverence for the form. Such wonderfully demonic lines, for example, as “Divinity of hell!/When devils will the blackest sins put on/They do suggest at first with heavenly shows/As I do now” are punctuated by Budd slowly making a circle on the stage with his sword, suggesting some ancient dark ritual that adds an ominous texture to Iago’s double life on stage. Likewise Othello’s desperate “All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven/’Tis gone/Arise, black vengeance, from thy hollow cell!” is performed earnestly under the stars as some sort of cosmic bargain. In the context of this masterful text and a summer night with magic in the air, these words and actions are imbued with all the power Shakespeare intended. Even clever rhetorical tricks like Shakespeare’s sledgehammer irony (constantly calling Iago “honest,” having Othello’s exaggerated poetry as in “my life upon her faith” come back to haunt him), carry a special weight, adding to the suspense of the plot and feeding into the moral themes of the show.

Tim Budd’s performance in this production is simply exquisite. A seasoned actor (this show marks his 50th with Riverside Theatre), he brings all his experience and creativity to bear in creating this very challenging character. Iago must be an expert actor himself, playing each character in a very specific way, and Budd does this extremely well. With Roderigo (played by Christopher Peltier) he is an exasperated mentor, with Desdemona a caring protector, with Othello a cautious and insightful adviser. It’s great to see him in the crowd scenes; the intense attention and subtle nuances of Budd’s group work allow us to see Iago’s schemes as they’re being devised, improvised, and applied. This is only part of the job, however; as the play’s de facto narrator, Iago has a very special relationship with the audience. When the others leave the stage and he is free to be himself we see the pure joy he takes in causing all this chaos. Budd luxuriates in Iago’s evil, almost dancing with maniacal glee as his plans come to fruition. It’s always rewarding to see Budd play a Shakespearean villain because they’re so well-rounded; he creates a believable and nuanced person and then pursues a scheme with a vicious primal energy. Othello marks the epitome of this process; in Iago we see a very clear and believable person, bitter at the world but committed to mastering his baser impulses in order to seek a grand revenge, and we see the deeper, darker suggestion of the Great Deceiver, as it were, underneath.

The other principals are excellent as well. Daver Morrison’s Othello has a somber weight to him; he is very believable as a great speaker, a brave warrior, and an effective leader. The contrast in his character work is particularly effective; he is so calm, measured, and controlled at the beginning that we get to see the fall of Othello very clearly, when he rolls on the floor seizing and blurting about handkerchiefs, we know that Iago has succeeded and what is left is a disintegrated man. Kelly Gibson’s Desdemona is a joy to watch; she brightens up the stage with her early entrances, and when she prods Othello about Cassio it is not as a nag but as a playful, loving wife, happy simply to be conversing with her beloved no matter what the subject matter. Desdemona is smart, sexy, and powerful, and she knows it. It is this confidence and charm that makes it all the more tragic when first her spirit and then her life are snuffed out by Othello’s unleashed rage. Morrison and Gibson work fabulously on stage together; there’s a wild physicality to their interactions but there’s also the simple pure happiness of newlyweds who can’t get enough of each other. When it all falls apart, both actors are intensely engaged, and the murder sequence (fight direction by Jason Tipsword) is executed with energy and artistry.

While the company itself is very solid, there are a couple scenes where the acting could use a little nuance. The beginning sequence (when Iago and Roderigo inform Brabantio, played by Ron Clark, of his daughter’s marriage) and the end sequence (where Emilia, played by Jody Hovland, finally figures out Iago’s plot and exposes it despite his threats) feel a bit out of tune with the rest of the score. There’s a lot of shouting and screaming in both of these scenes, which makes sense given the extreme emotional stakes, but the trouble with this is that turmoil must be sustained for quite a few lines, and for this reviewer, it didn’t ring true. The intense anger, grief and confusion are probably a fitting counterpoint to Iago’s careful scheming, but the execution of Brabantio and Emilia’s explosions could have used more ups and downs. As is, these two scenes feel like bookends of bluster. Not that they do much that harm the overall feel of the show as an emotional experience, but I did found myself stepping out of it for a few brief moments.

Othello is a wonderful production, and if you’ve never treated yourself to the lovely time that is outdoor Shakespeare, there’s no time like the present. This is a masterpiece of a script, brought to life by an insightful director and very committed actors. Othello runs in repertory with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised] through July 13; more information here.

Complete Works Brings Out the Bard’s Bawd

Spencer D. Christensen, John William Watkins, Christopher Peltier

By James E. Trainor III
Photo By Bob Goodfellow

Iowa City – The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised] is a loving send-up of our culture’s most beloved playwright, penned by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield. With a text updated from its original 1987 production to keep its humor current, three actors (Spencer D. Christensen, Christopher Peltier, and John William Watkins) slam through the entire Shakespearean canon in roughly two hours, with plenty of bawdy humor, hilarious sight gags, and amusing misinterpretations along the way. The show is playing now in Lower City Park, under the direction of Ron Clark.

The show is part classical acting, part improv and audience participation, and part anarchic sketch comedy, and it requires a lot of its actors. These three are definitely up to the challenge. John William Watkins has a hilarious deadpan stare and a brilliant sense of comic timing. He knows how to play with the audience, sharing the absurdity of the moment with us while never breaking “character.” He is the most fun when left alone onstage, terrified because the other “actors” have abandoned him, and trying to kill time. This section has a number of fun bits that Watkins carries through with commitment and skill.

Spencer D. Christensen has tireless energy and a very broad range, creating many fun characters. He comes on as a “preeminent Shakespeare scholar” and treats us to a smart (but filthy) rant about Shakespeare’s productivity; ten minutes later he’s a loud, lowbrow Titus Andronicus hosting a revenge-themed cooking show. When the “show” stumbles and the “actors” argue about the best way to present Shakespeare, his responses are very true-to-life, which keeps the comedy very lively.

Christopher Peltier’s boyish charm completes this trio, and the playfulness he brings to the stage draws us in to this wacky world. His excitement is infectious, whether he’s hamming up Shakespeare’s greatest heroines or whether he’s leading an impromptu workshop of Ophelia’s scream. He draws on audience energy to keep a bit going in a really endearing way.

While Complete Works is full of witty nuggets for hardcore Shakespeare fans, much of its humor comes from its reckless irreverence, its juvenile joy at boisterous physical comedy and bawdy body humor. Ron Clark’s direction does a great job of bringing this silliness to the fore, and the naughtiness of the Bard is certainly a highlight here. There’s nowhere these three won’t go for a joke, and the absolute abandon is freeing. The pace itself seems to struggle a bit near the beginning, but it really gets rolling near the end of the first act, and the second act is a non-stop laugh ride.

The design of Complete Works is very effective. Jenny Nutting Kelchen’s costumes are colorful and efficient, turning this three performers into a wide array of different characters both male and female. The attention to detail adds a lot of texture to the story (when Peltier comes back at the top of the first act, for instance, we know by his outfit that he stopped at the gift shop when attempting to book a plane out of town). The layering allows for the frequent transitions to happen frequently, and the entire build is riddled with clever sight gags. Josh Christoffersen’s set, which is colorful and minimalist, allows all this to fit in a tiny area, leaving a wide open space in which to play the show. David Thayer’s lighting design allows us to visit the varied emotional realms that Shakespeare frequents, while Drew Bielinski’s sound design is fantastic at punctuating a gag with just the right noise or sound clip.

The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abriged) [revised] is loads of fun whether you come for the Shakespeare, the comedy, or both. It’s performed by excellent actors on the same beautiful stage in Lower City Park where Riverside has been bringing you outdoor classics for years. In runs in repertory with Othello through July 13; do yourself a favor and go check it out. More information here.

God of Carnage Delightfully Vicious

By James E. Trainor III
Photos by Len Struttmann

Chad Canfield, Deborah Maynard, D. Allan Boettger, and Stephanie Corkran.

Cedar Rapids – The setting is a comfortable middle-class living room, a space which is not afraid of advertising its culture: there are curious paintings on the wall, inviting picture books on the modest coffee table, some lovely tulips downstage. It has an aura of being a bastion of civilization. And why shouldn’t it? This is, after all, where Veronica (Stephanie Corkran) and Michael (D. Allan Boettger) have invited Allan (Chad Canfield) and Annette (Deborah Maynard) to calmly work out a dispute between their children. It seems Allan and Annette’s son decided to clobber Veronica and Michael’s son with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth. Tensions are understandably high, but these are educated adults, so they’re going to rise above it, for the sake of their children and in the name of all western civilization.

Only it’s not that easy. Yazmina Reza’s God of Carnage (tr. Christopher Hampton), which is an admittedly cynical satire of liberal hypocrisy while also being an absolutely hilarious situation piece, does a great job of digging beneath the airs we put on and questioning why adults so often act like children when confronted with someone they despise. For all her political correctness and her attempts at civility, Veronica holds a thinly veiled disdain for Allan and Annette, and when she stoops to give them parenting advice and is rebuked, she becomes involved in a scene that reveals the shaky foundation of her marriage and causes her to question her very values.

J. David Carey’s direction moves the piece in a swift, organic fashion while managing to deal with the challenges of placing a living room in the middle of a three-quarter round setting. The set, designed by Daniel Kelchen, adds to the story by giving a lot of background to Veronica and Michael’s life. The furniture was at times a liability, though; while the set is fairly open, a couple of crosses seem clunky and unnatural, because paths were obstructed and the actors had trouble working that into their reality. There is also some awkwardness with some books that are vomited on (a funny and somewhat startling set piece), because they aren’t really consistent about what’s been damaged and how badly. These are small potatoes, though, as the strength of Carey’s direction, and the actors’ work, rests squarely on the very clear relationships they build together.

Canfield’s Allan is funny and effective, a successful lawyer who has learned to hide his impatience and disinterest with anything relating to the domestic sphere. Canfield is a skilled comedian who listens to his stage partners and knows how to take over the stage when he has to. Allan’s constant character note is his dismissive attitude and his insistence on taking calls from a client in front of everyone. This gives a great opportunity for some ensemble work; the conversation stops and there is a palpable discomfort as Canfield confidently strolls around the room, giving marching orders to the representative of a pharmaceutical company under attack.

Maynard’s Annette is crafted well, and marks a great contrast to Allan’s lack of decorum. She presents a tense but controlled woman, who is embarrassed by the situation but able to cope. Throughout the course of the play, we get to see her fall to pieces, however, and Maynard’s physical work is impressive. The stiff posture and quiet anger is released as Annette vomits onstage, and Maynard creates a contrast in the rest of the play, where Annette is not only loosened up and comfortable, she’s ready to talk about her deep dissatisfaction.

Boettger’s Michael is also the portrait of a dissatisfied spouse, and he uses contrast to make this clear as well. The person at the beginning, a smiling, conciliatory “whatever-you-say, dear” supporting character, becomes the center of attention when he viciously airs his disgust with marriage, children, and their little furry pets. To see the mild-mannered man come apart at the seams is funny, if a little scary, but what makes Boettger’s character work so effective is that he is so in tune with Corkran. The work they do together speaks volumes about the history of this marriage, adding a layer of humanity and reality to the words on the page.

Corkran herself has the hardest job, for while all the characters in God of Carnage are unlikeable, Veronica is the one who could most easily degenerate into a cartoon. On the page, she feels very close to an Ayn Rand caricature of a liberal pacifist: a self-appointed crusader for civilization, willing to use aggressive and even violent tactics when people don’t agree with her. Some of Reza’s signifiers (she’s writing a book on Darfur, she’s compared to Jane Fonda), are a bit cliche and a little too easy. More importantly, when the everyone else in the play willingly unveiled their flaws, she sticks to her guns and refuses to admit any wrongdoing, no matter how petty she becomes. She’s almost the villain of the play, the one who stands in the way of clarity and truth.

Stephanie Corkran

In Corkran’s hands, however, we see a well-rounded character. Though Veronica is ridiculous, she’s also sympathetic. Through her nonverbals and her attention to the other actors, we get a sense of Veronica’s good qualities as well as her bad, and, particularly through her interaction with Boettger, we see how toxic her marriage is, and how much she’s hurting. In the last moments, as Veronica consoles her daughter on the phone (she’s upset because Daddy basically killed her pet hamster), I saw something I’ve never seen in this play before: Veronica isn’t truly naive. She knows exactly how messed up the world is, and how powerless she is, and this is the source of her anger. This surprisingly tender humanity serves to smooth the rough edges of Reza’s very cynical script, while still staying within her reality. It makes Veronica a very realistic person, which in turn makes the whole play a hell of a lot funnier.

God of Carnage is a very funny play that refuses to pull its punches when it comes to taking on the gaps between our lofty ideals and our actual actions. TCR’s cast, under Carey’s guidance, does a wonderful job of bringing these flawed but intriguing characters to life. I would add a warning here about a great deal of profanity, if that’s something that bothers you, but otherwise I would recommend you check out this play: it’s full of laughs, and it just might make you think.

God of Carnage plays through May 18 in TCR’s Grandon Studio. More information here.

Jesus Is Cool: Strong on Style, Short on Storytelling

By James E. Trainor III
Photos by Jackie Jensen at ICPixx

Coralville – Near the end of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas sings: “If you’d come today, you would have reached a whole nation, Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication.” For City Circle’s production, director Elizabeth Tracey takes this quote as her jumping-off point. What we see is a Superstar that is unapologetically modern: excited young people swarming Jesus snapping pictures, police in full riot gear, Caiaphas and his smarmy cronies in business meetings. The result is a concept which, while faithfully executed by cast and crew, fits the text like a second-hand suit, landing solidly in places, but hanging loose and awkwardly in others.

The cast is great. Rob Merrit’s Judas is heartfelt and well thought-out, he has endless energy, and plays well with the score. Esack Grueskin’s Jesus is quite charismatic, with a very soulful voice, and he holds forth with a surprising subtle wisdom when correcting his followers. Hannah Loeb has a wonderful voice, and her Mary carries the emotional scenes with tension and grace. The ensemble holds solid throughout the piece, working well with each other and finding lots of effective little moments.

The core conceit, that of Jesus’s band of revolutionaries being uppity middle class kids who need to be put down by media moguls, seems to muddy the text more often than it clarifies it. To be fair, it is a lot of fun, and it looks great. Patrick Dulaney’s choreography and Emily Christoffersen’s costumes hit the mark more often than not. However, a lot of the objective work is unclear because the stakes are very different in this new setting. This causes some problems in the first act, where Judas’s fears are pretty much in line with Caiaphas’s: Jesus is going to lead the rabble to Jerusalem and bring the Roman army down on all their heads. Judas sings “it’s all gone sour;” Caiaphas prophecies “death and destruction, because of one man.” But the dread and danger in the text doesn’t come to life for much of the production, so these lines are sort of sung past.

One moment does transcend, and does what only an anachronistic setting can really do with a historical story: shows us how much everything has stayed the same. In “Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem,” the apostles storm the stage with machine guns, ready to take the fight to the capital. In the midst of the excited celebration, the youngest disciples runs on, is given a gun by one of the apostles, is shown how to use it, and ends the number pointing it directly at the audience. It’s a chilling moment, as we recognize what the desperation of the oppressed has led them to, and at the same time recognize that they’re doomed.

Other stagings are less clear, and while it’s interesting to see Tracey take risks and challenge more traditional interpretations of the text, I’m not sure what she’s replacing them with. In “The Temple,” a huddle of gyrating teens take ecstasy and “roll” (get it?) “on up” in the Temple. Jesus is uncharacteristically angered, and throws them out, which comes off as strange, because the moneylenders are replaced with partygoers. Is hedonism as bad to Jesus as greed? Perhaps we’re meant to think it is.

The most troubling moment is “Superstar” itself, the title song in which Judas sums up his doubts and frustrations. This one is always a little metatheatrical, because the character is coming back from the dead and confronting Jesus from a modern perspective. In this production, however, he comes straight from Hell, complete with an angelic choir dressed in red instead of white. The irony is interesting, but the implications are a bit troubling: is doubt itself the bad guy of this piece? Obviously, nobody’s listening to Jesus’s message, or the crucifixion wouldn’t have been necessary. But Superstar centers heavily on believers’ ambivalence and need for answers, and this staging seems to suggest that such questioning is dangerous or immoral.

The ending is done very effectively and seems to bring the show back on-message. After the crucifixion is done, Jesus’s followers lovingly carry him offstage, and the screens onstage, where there were all sorts of flashy tricks before, simply show some of Jesus’s most powerful statements. The statement is clear: now people are finally listening. And the simplicity, to counter the “superstar” frenzy of before, is really touching.

All in all, I found the concept rather distracting, because the story often got lost – the great costumes and clever set pieces came off as so much window dressing at times. A radical setting change is not bad in itself, but it’s problematic when a director chooses that instead of a strong thematic focus. The message of this production is muddied by its approach, but as far as I can tell, it seems to be that people are foolish and self-centered and do what the media tells them. This seems oddly cynical for a story about the most famous revolutionary of all time. I’m hesitant to accept the message that “nothing has changed” when the oppressed are not only privileged and educated but have the means to get their message out in the palm of their hands. However, at its heart, Superstar is not a parable, but a rock opera, and a very good one at that. What’s lost here in storytelling is made up for in spectacle and style.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs through April 14 at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts. More information here.

Riverside’s Walking the Wire "Merges" Apt Acting and Deft Directing

By James E. Trainor III

Iowa City – The word “merge” can have a lot of connotations. One imagines driving, certainly, but also two things combining, coalescing, becoming a new thing, maybe a company, a family, a partnership. It’s a very rich word to wrap a theme around, so it’s understandable that Riverside Theatre’s annual monologue show, Walking the Wire: Merge has such a wide variety of offerings.

The show, directed by Jody Hovland, consists of twelve stories presented by seven actors. It runs through March 9th.

What is most striking is the many different ways the various writers use the theme. At times it is a jumping-off point, at other times, a punchline. This results in a number of very different stories, many of which create their own engaging worlds. These are most effective, however, when they start with a clear character, as in Janet Story Schlapkohl’s “P.S. I Merged” (performed by Elijah Jones). Schlapkohl’s piece tells the story of a special education student who is “merging” into the general school population. He is an incredible mathematician who struggles with social skills, which is evident from Jones’ awkward cadence and the way he squirms in his chair. However, he’s read his IEP (Individual Education Plan), and he’s done all the math and knows exactly how many seconds of conversation he has to get in to meet his goals. It’s a very clever setup, at once satirical and empathetic, and between Schlapkohl’s writing and Jones’ acting, the alienation this character feels and the shortcomings of standardized approaches are made shatteringly clear. It’s a very funny piece that ends on a high note, but it’s also an insightful look at the world from the perspective of someone who seems very different, but maybe isn’t so much as you’d think.

“Merge,” by Jesse Longman (performed by Tim Budd), approaches the theme from a very literal perspective. We see an anal-retentive, fussy driving instructor sitting in front of a road map, lecturing us on the rules of the road. Budd’s character is very clearly drawn, in his physical and vocal mannerisms as well as his costume. While funny at first, he clearly has a reason for being here, and as Longman carefully drops little hints of exposition, we grow to understand that we’re hearing about a fatal traffic accident, one with very emotional stakes for the speaker. It’s an excellently crafted speech, delivered with pointed intensity by Budd, and for me it is the dramatic highlight of the evening.

Not every script is as a strong as these two; while a couple are very good, and most of them are at least attention-grabbing, one or two seem to run around in circles or devolve into cliche. Fortunately, any lukewarm writing is made up for by some really dedicated acting. All of these performers are at the top of their game: Ron Clark is funny, Carrie Houchins-Witt is warm and insightful, and Nate Sullivan communicates the pathos of his piece well. As mentioned above, Jones and Budd both give wonderful performances.

Two actors that stood out specifically for showing a lot of range were Jessica Wilson and Kristen Behrendt. Often in Walking the Wire, a performer will present two pieces, and these two got gems because they got to create such markedly different characters. In “The Stripper Seminar” by Frank Higgins, Wilson plays the hardened owner of a strip club, a no-nonsense woman with one goal: to teach women how to fleece men for money. She’s funny here because of her strong delivery and her impeccable comic timing. In “Then and Now” by Laura Story Johnson, she’s also funny, but more because of her vulnerability and honesty, as this down-to-earth conversational piece tells the story of a young mother who’s struggling to cope and wondering what happened to her old self.

Behrendt shows similar range: in “Have a Little Faith” by Jamie Pachino, she portrays a partner and mother, lovingly devoted to her wife, but high-strung and not easily satisfied; in “Contrition,” by Amanda Petefish-Schrag she is almost the polar opposite, a fun-loving, carefree woman who is exasperated because her husband is too serious. The moment Behrendt steps on the stage, with her confident stance and free-flowing body language, it is clear this is a totally different person and a totally different piece. One of the fun parts of a night of monologues is seeing actors try on different characters in this way.

While the evening does have its ups and downs, Hovland’s direction and a lot of solid work from the company help this year’s Walking the Wire “merge” into a cohesive night of theatre that you don’t want to miss. So hop in your car and head on down to Riverside… just make sure you pay attention to the street signs along the way!

Walking the Wire: Merge runs through March 9 at 213 N Gilbert St. in Iowa City. More information here.