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All the Worlds of Stage: Mike Schulz and Thom White Discuss Area Theatre in 2011 - Page 3 PDF Print E-mail
Theatre - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Thursday, 15 December 2011 11:53

Adam Michael Lewis and Kevin Grastorf in Frost/NixonBut beyond the big musicals, the District Theatre is also still doing smaller shows: I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change; The Last Five Years ... .

I’m glad that not every show is this grand, bigger-than-life production. Because that is an intimate space, and so it’s nice, every few shows, to enjoy the intimacy of the space.

Let’s talk a bit about Same Time, Next Year, because it seemed like that was a production where your personal morals really affected your enjoyment.

Absolutely. I’m not a prude. You know, one of my favorite shows is Dexter, where you’re applauding a serial killer. But there’s one thing that I cannot look past, and that’s marital infidelity. It’s one thing when relationships break up. But when you’ve gotten to the point of marriage, and you have stood before witnesses and said, “I have committed myself for life,” I personally take that very seriously. And then this show was all about two married people who are getting together every year to cheat on their spouses, and I think we’re supposed to find them charming. And I just couldn’t. The performances were fine, but that show ... . Ugh.

[Laughs.] Frost/Nixon, though, you seemed happily surprised by.

Yes!

So you hadn’t seen the movie?

No. That was one on our Netflix list, and I kept moving it down because I feared that it was going to be boring. But seeing the play, I was like, “Oh my gosh, what have I been missing?!” And in fact, my partner Matt went with me to see that, and we got home, and he was like, “I want to watch the movie right now!” And I had to say, “No, I need to write my review before I see the movie.”

I thought Adam [Lewis] was terrific as David Frost, and I was blown away by Kevin Grastorf. I mean, Richard Nixon could very easily be played as a caricature, and there was nothing phony about that performance. He didn’t necessarily look like him or sound like him, but even very early in the show, it felt like he completely nailed that role.

As I think I said in my review, I didn’t know if the voice was accurate or not, and maybe it helped that I didn’t know. But I’ve heard Nixon enough that I knew his [Grastorf’s] accent was somewhat like Nixon’s, if not totally dead-on. And you’re right. The spirit of Nixon was present.

(clockwise from left) Melissa Anderson Clark, Jonathan Grafft, Jason Platt, and Jackie Madunic in God of CarnageNew Ground Theatre’s God of Carnage was another script you weren’t previously familiar with that, it seemed, you really liked a lot.

Yes . I find it funny seeing people at their worst, in some aspects. I just think people getting unreasonably angry can be really funny. And this play actually celebrates people doing ugly things, but also acknowledges the funniness of it. There isn’t a lot to the show, but I think it’s captivating from beginning to end.

I like the basic setup: Four people get together to talk about their grade-school kids, and end up acting like toddlers. And I loved Melissa Anderson Clark in that production. That woman has such a great body for comedy ... which probably sounds worse than I mean it to. [Laughs.] She was just all legs and arms in that show, and the more drunk she got, the happier I was.

And I think she consistently comes across as sincere in her roles. Believable.

But you weren’t a big fan of the other scripts at New Ground this year.

Not really. I sometimes hear people saying that the reviewers here – or maybe it’s just me – are out to get people. That they just want to be mean and stuff. But I feel really badly when I have to give a bad review. All I can think of is, “Monday morning, this person is gonna see this, and ... !” Ugh.

And with Under the Radar at New Ground, it was even worse, because it was written locally by Chris Jansen, whom I like, and whom I consider a friend. And I wanted to like it. And I heard some of the actors took the review very personally, because their own stories were part of this show [about the Quad Cities’ gay and lesbian scene in the 1970s and 1980s]. So I felt bad, but the play needed some reworking to sound more like the way people actually speak.

But you did say that Under the Radar had really interesting multimedia elements.

That one did benefit from the multimedia, because they showed actual clips from the ’70s – from newscasts and interviews and whatnot. And I think that really helped elevate the show by adding more context. I was just enraptured by the clips, and think they were put in the right places to break up scenes.

[Laughs.] A friend of mine told me that the cast used one of the lines in my review as a rallying cry each night. I didn’t want to focus too much on the acting in the review, because I wanted to get to the heart of what the show was about, and say something positive about the multimedia. So I just wrote, “The acting is adequate at best.” And so the rallying cry for the cast members, I hear, became, “Let’s do a great job tonight. No. Let’s be adequate at best!” [Laughs.] Which is kind of ... flattering, maybe? I don’t know.

[Laughs.] Yeah, I don’t know either. You might as well take it as a compliment.

[Laughs.] That’s what I think.

Jamie Em Behncke and Susan Perrin-Sallak in And They Dance Real Slow in JacksonWith New Ground’s And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson, though, it seemed like while you didn’t care for the script, you really liked the performances.

And the staging. I especially liked how director Patti Flaherty handled the main character when she’s being bullied in her mind, and is in that dramatic spotlight ... . I really liked how those scenes were staged. Very much so. And I thought some of the actors did a great job of differentiating their roles when they were playing so many characters. And their ages. The script isn’t one of my favorites, but I thought it was very touching, and whenever a play hits an emotional chord, there’s something very good about it. It’s worth seeing.

I’ve actually got a soft spot for that script, because that’s a play that I did as a student at Augustana College. So let’s talk a bit about Augie. To start with: Can we talk about the freakin’ swimming pool in Metamorphoses?!

Oh my gosh.

That show was thrilling. One of the most enjoyable times I’ve had at the theatre all year. Easy. And as much as I loved the production overall, it was because of the pool. In your review, I remember you saying that you thought the pool was going to be ... .

A hindrance.

Yes.

And it wasn’t. It was necessary. It really ... it just made that show, and brought all of its mythological themes together. I loved how the director [Saffron Henke] used the water in ways where it wasn’t always meant to be water. Sometimes the characters were drowning in emotion. It was just so exquisite.

And the pool really seemed to free the students as actors. Talk about abandon. When you’re throwing people headfirst into a pool, or screaming while being repeatedly submerged, or using the water to heighten the eroticism ... . There was just some powerful, raw theatre going on in that show.

You know, it’s rare when I go to a show a second time – just because of how much theatre I already see – but that was one where I did. I paid for tickets and went again. And I kind of wished I hadn’t. [Laughs.] Not that it was bad or anything. But the second time around, I could kind of see the cracks in the production, and didn’t find it as endearing. It was still good. But I was so taken with the first performance that after being familiar with the show on a second viewing, the experience didn’t match up.

Samantha Bestvina and Neil Friberg (foreground) and Robin Quinn (background) in MetamorphosesI’m sorry I didn’t get to see it again. I was actually really sad to see the pool gone for Augie’s Our Town. I got there and was like, “Aw, where’s the pool ... ?” [Laughs.] But I had a ball at the show regardless. It’s one of my all-time favorites. And you liked Our Town, too – although, as I recall, that’s a play that can be troublesome for you?

Yeah, a little. Mostly because it’s like, “Oh, another theatre is doing Our Town? Ugh. Enough.”

But what I appreciate especially about Augustana is the way they use the stage. Whether they use projections or lights to delineate different areas, or, in that case, I think they used gaffer’s tape to mark off certain areas. I rarely like pantomiming props and doors and whatnot, but the way they did it at Augustana, I didn’t even notice they were pantomiming anything. It just flowed. I liked the whole concept of what they were doing with that show.

And then, two months ago, the school did Real Girls Can’t Win! And you weren’t a big fan.

Now that I’m in my second year [of reviewing for the Reader], I kind of know what to expect from each theatre. Like, I know what standard to expect. And Real Girls Can’t Win!, I just thought, did not live up to the Augustana College standard, when they’ve been doing respectable, strong scripts like Metamorphoses or Our Town. It seemed like this was written for college students, by college students. Which maybe is appropriate ... .

Sure. But when you’re used to seeing Our Town or Metamorphoses or The Seagull ... .

The Seagull – yes. Exactly. So relative to the other things they’ve done, Real Girls Can’t Win! was just preachy, and its themes weren’t that mature, and it was pretentious. Because the issues it raised, like how important it was for these girls to be popular, were treated like the most important things in the world. And I’m thinking, “These are not problems. In a few years, you’ll know about problems.” [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Do you get to see any theatre at St. Ambrose University? I know we don’t ask you to review the productions because of their one-weekend runs ... .

I have seen shows at St. Ambrose. But again, as much as I like theatre – and with Matt and the girls [Matt’s daughter Hannah is 12] and my day job and everything – I find it hard to find time for shows I’m not reviewing.

Cody E. Johnson, Stacy Phipps, and Tim Stompanato in Dakota Jones & the Search for AtlantisWell, life does tend to get in the way of theatre-going. [Laughs.] But I wish you could have seen Dakota Jones [& the Search for Atlantis] with the girls. What a strong, delightful kids’ show that was. I wasn’t a big fan of A New Brain at Ambrose, though. And while I really admired the performances and thought Daniel Rairdin-Hale’s direction was beautiful, I had major problems with Columbinus – the show that was inspired by the Columbine massacre. I wasn’t comfortable with it. I thought it came close to glorifying the killers, and was empathetic in the wrong way.

Which would’ve been what those two wanted.

Maybe. But Dakota Jones was just sensational. And seriously, between Ambrose and Circa and [Davenport] Junior Theatre, which did this incredibly entertaining, one-act version of Midsummer Night’s Dream this year, I really do have an embarrassing amount of fun at kids’ shows around here.

I wonder if that’s because, as adults, we have so much stress and real-world blech that it’s kind of nice to go for the escapism. To touch base with your inner child, and just let go and be free and have fun.

But honestly? I always get a little nervous when I go to a Circa kids’ show alone. Like people around me are thinking, “What’s this adult guy doing here?!?” [Laughs.] So while usually, at other shows, I try to hide the fact that I’m taking notes, I try to be very obvious about it at Circa. I make a big deal about spreading out my notebook and arranging things so people know, “Oh, he must doing something other than watching kids ... !”

[Laughs.] I hear you. But back to college theatre. I didn’t get to Scott Community College to see War of the Worlds this fall, and I really wanted to. You had fun with that one, right?

I did. At the risk of being offensive, and I don’t mean to be, Scott Community College is one place where I have to go in with the expectation that it’s going to be a community-college experience. That these are students who are getting an opportunity to act but don’t necessarily get the chance to do it a lot. And so the level of presentation is going to be different from many other theatres. But I like their shows, because once you take away the expectation of greatness, and just enjoy the beauty of people getting to try theatre out, there’s something pure about the joy on that stage that really is endearing.

I agree. Because you get to watch students learning the basic tenets of theatre – of projection, and character, and expressing the feeling behind the words you’re saying. This is stuff that a lot of people take for granted, but you have to learn somewhere, and this is really where you’re seeing it happen. It’s exciting to watch students learn in the theatre, and really exciting when you sense the fun they’re having while learning.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see Scott’s Agnes of God in the spring. I felt bad about not being able to see that one, especially since I heard the director [Steve Flanigin] was really proud of it.

Yeah, that one popped on our radar really late, and it fell on a weekend where you were already seeing, I think, three shows ... .

Yeah. I just couldn’t fit it in. But I heard it was great! [Laughs.]

Pam Kobre, Hannah McNaught, Don Faust, Dana Moss-Peterson, and Taylor Apple in Leaving IowaI wish you had been able to see Leaving Iowa at [the] Playcrafters [Barn Theatre], which was a collaboration with Black Hawk College. Because the Black Hawk students in that were fantastic – every bit as good as the Playcrafters veterans. And the lead? Dana Moss-Peterson? Boy, is he someone to keep an eye on. He’s really strong. But tell me about the Playcrafters shows you did see.

I do recall some just really standing out. Lend Me a Tenor, I thought, was really quite amusing. John VanDeWoestyne was fantastic. Diane Greenwood is really good in the right roles – really good in the right roles – and that was one where I thought she did a great job. Rehearsal for Murder was kind of like a farce, but like a touching farce. You hear the title and think it’s going to be one of those shows, but it was lovely.

[Laughs.] I do have kind of a funny story about Playcrafters, though. About Vising Mr. Green, which I had not seen before. Matt and I had Madison that weekend, and I had to review the show, and I didn’t feel like going alone, and Matt kind of wanted to go, and so he called the theatre and asked, “Is this appropriate for a seven-year-old?” And they said, “Oh, yes.” So we took Madison. And it was not appropriate for a seven-year-old. [Laughs.]

Over the last few years, we have not spoken about being gay, or being a gay couple, in front of the girls. We just think that if we talk about it, then it becomes something “different,” and we’d rather have them growing up thinking that with Matt and I, it’s just what it is. That it’s nothing “different.” Hannah had figured things out by then, but Madison ... .

Well, this play is all about this guy who’s gay and coming out and having to deal with that. And so the whole car ride home had Madison going, “What is ‘gay’?” And “Oh, so it’s okay to be gay!” And for weeks after, if there was a gay couple on any TV show, she’d be, “They’re gay!” [Laughs.]

So we probably should not have taken her to it, but it ended up being kind of a funny story. And a learning experience.

[Laughs.] And there was no permanent damage, apparently.

No, there’s not. [Laughs.]