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The Essentials 2008: A Dozen Names to Remember PDF Print E-mail
Theatre - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 17 December 2008 02:42

Essentials Tyson Danner (left) and James Bleecker (standing), with Jackie Madunic and Jason Platt, in Angels in America: Perestroika For the third year in a row, I've composed a list of 12 area-theatre participants who devoted their time, energy, and skills to numerous theatrical organizations and venues during the past year. And once again - happily and inspiringly - it hasn't been necessary to repeat names from one year to the next; local theatre, to the great good fortune of local audiences, never seems to run out of talent.

Past "Essentials" lists have included Jeremy Day, Jeff De Leon, Erin Churchill (nee Dickerson), Pat and Patti Flaherty, Kimberly Furness, Bob Hanske, Brad Hauskins, Jennifer Kingry, Adam Lewis, Jackie Madunic, Jeremy Mahr, Andrea Moore, Jason Platt, Tristan Tapscott, Harold Truitt, Tom Walljasper, Chris White, and Maggie Woolley, each of whose theatrical gifts were amply (and oftentimes frequently) employed in 2008. It is a pleasure to add the following dozen to their ranks - performers, directors, and impresarios who added immeasurably to the continual thrill that was area theatre in 2008.

There were so many contenders for the list, in truth, that I had to impose some parameters to keep the mentions down to a mere 12: involvement in at least four productions (up from three in 2006), and participation with at least two different theatre companies. Meaning that, for the first time, I had to leave off some hard-working, incredibly enjoyable performers at the Clinton Showboat and Timber Lake Playhouse.

Apologies, then, to Clinton's Joshua Estrada and Craig A. Miller, and Timber Lake's Justin Banta, Samantha Dubina, Brandon Ford, Zachary Gray, Jenny Guse, Danny Henning, Heather Herkelman, and Michael J. Yarnell. But, you know, if you all ever want to move here ... .

 

Derek Bertelsen and Tyson Danner

Derek Bertelsen (right), with John Weigandt and Greg Golz in Once Uponn a Mattress Let's see. In 2008, Bertelsen lent his directorial ingenuity, playfulness, and superior strengths with actors to productions of Fully Committed, Eleemosynary, Misery, the sensational A Year with Frog & Toad, and the spectacular Assassins at the Green Room (where Bertelsen serves as executive director), helmed a first-rate presentation of A Streetcar Named Desire for Harrison Hilltop, and appeared as a sardonic jester for Music Guild's Once Upon a Mattress. Danner, the Green Room's artistic director, made his directorial debut with the venue's marvelous john & jen, followed it (a mere two weeks later) with Jerry Finnegan's Sister, music-directed Assassins, and delivered gorgeous vocals within the singing quintet of New Ground's Closer Than Ever. Oh yeah, and Bertelsen and Danner ended their year with the Green Room's Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, with Bertelsen directing (and directing well) and Danner playing the engagingly caustic, self-loathing Louis. Among the duo's Green Room projects for 2009: Hair, Cabaret, and Doubt. I mean, are they kidding with this?

 

James Bleecker

James Bleecker and Tyson Danner in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches If you're a theatre-goer, you probably weren't aware of Bleecker's talents before he starred in the Green Room's June comedy Jerry Finnegan's Sister. By the time he finished his second turn as Prior Walter in December's Angels in America: Perestroika, though, you'd be hard-pressed to forget them. I'm not sure how someone goes from unknown to indispensable so quickly, but man, did it ever happen for this wonderfully enthusiastic and naturalistic performer. After his charming partnership with Abby Van Gerpen in the two-character J.F.S., Bleecker enacted a winning, singing-and-dancing snail for A Year with Frog & Toad, made memorable (unrequited) love in Harrison Hilltop's Almost, Maine, rose to another two-person challenge with the theatre's The Woman in Black, and - entering the rehearsal process 11 days before Millennium Approaches' opening night - gave a pair of stunningly subtle, hilarious, heartrending performances in the Angels in America presentations. The actor's name on his Facebook page reads "James Effing Bleecker." I'm thinking that's because he's so effing good.

 

Jaci Entwisle

Jaci Entwisle, with James Bleecker in Almost, Maine Some area performers are known for their work at a specific area venue. Given time, Entwisle might be known for her work at all of them. A senior at St. Ambrose University, she performed for no less than five different theatre groups in 2008, bringing her sharp focus, beguiling ease, and justifiable confidence - to say nothing of that beautifully rich, low voice of hers - to each and every one. Entwisle appeared in The Taming of the Shrew, Life's a Dream, and The Merchant of Venice (also serving as that production's lighting master) alongside the Prenzie Players, portrayed one of Almost, Maine's romantics at Harrison Hilltop, gave a hysterical performance in the Riverbend Theatre Collective's Kimberly Akimbo, delivered a charismatic female lead in Playcrafters' Promises, Promises, and even found time for a show at St. Ambrose, joining in the merriment of Seussical Jr. Just imagine what Entwisle can accomplish after May, when she finally has some time on her hands ... !

 

Neil Friberg

Neil Friberg, with Dana Jarrard and Alysa Grimes, in Death in Character Show for show, few actors this year looked like they were having a better time on-stage than Friberg. Granted, he had plenty of reason for exuding such positive energy. At Black Hawk College, the performer was able to deliver robust character turns in April's Death in Character and November's Jack: Or, the Submission, and at Genesius Guild, Friberg was cast in plum Shakespeare roles - Antipholus in The Comedy of Errors, Paris in Romeo & Juliet - that he pulled off with skill and style. (He also added to the genial buffoonery in Don Wooten's take on The Clouds.) Still, Friberg appeared to be having just as much fun in Genesius Guild's Electra this summer, a show in which I don't recall him even having a line. But every time your eye landed on him, you saw someone completely engaged in the moment; like all good stage actors, Friberg is always present. I'm glad that, in 2008, he was nearly omnipresent.

 

Don Hazen

Don Hazen in The Woman in Black Hazen is the possessor of one of area theatre's great voices - it suggests a hard-won ease and relaxation, and projects utter honesty - and in 2008, happily, the actor wasn't shy about sharing it. After taking part (and parts) in the springtime trifecta of Richmond Hill (for February's Light Up the Sky), Music Guild (for March's Once Upon a Mattress), and Playcrafters (for May's 12 Angry Men), Hazen complemented his busy spring with a busy fall, appearing in Harrison Hilltop's The Woman in Black and The Odd Couple. Performing opposite Greg O'Neill's Oscar Madison, Hazen was cast wa-a-a-ay against type in Neil Simon's comedy - his serene presence and soothing vocal rhythms were, theoretically, all wrong for Felix - and wound up delivering a beautifully thought-out portrayal of a character you never thought of as having depth. As an actor, Hazen doesn't necessarily fit every part (nor should he), but it's impressive and inspiring to watch every new part fit him.

 

J.W. Hertner

J.W. Hertner, with Jessica Stratton, in Almost Maine Hertner performed in seven 2008 productions, but you'll be forgiven for not realizing it, because he didn't act - or look - the same in any of them. His incredibly productive year began with Scott Community College's Casablanca-meets-Shakespeare spoof Richard Blaine, and continued with My Verona's debuting Inside Out, which found Hertner playing the son of a goat (!). This was followed by a charming Design for Living for Scott, and then an excellent performance in Harrison Hilltop's Almost, Maine, where the formerly clean-shaven, brunette actor was now blond and bearded. Hertner stayed at Harrison, sans beard, for a beautifully played newsboy in A Streetcar Named Desire, then joined the ensemble of Playcrafters' Promises, Promises, and wrapped up his year back at Harrison, where his dynamic cop Murray for The Odd Couple was an uncanny doppelgänger of David Arquette in Scream. Sadly for us, Hertner departs the area in January for California, but if he ever chooses to return, I'm betting there'll be a role - or a dozen - waiting for him.

 

Sheri Hess

Sheri Hess, with Bryan J. Tank, in Evita When I interviewed Hess in conjunction with Music Guild's 2007 Beehive, we discussed the availability of meaty roles for women, and Hess said, "When they do come around, I seek them out. I go hunting." Seek and ye shall find; Hess didn't start her 2008 theatre endeavors until August, yet this radiant, focused, sneakily funny performer found meaty roles to last her the rest of the year. Playing Music Guild's Evita, she handled the demanding Andrew Lloyd Webber score with inspiring ease (her vocal range is truly intimidating), and was unapologetic about revealing Eva Peron's steely will and flinty nature. Her solos in New Ground's Closer Than Ever were among that revue's very best, particularly her giddy, free-wheeling account of a joyous one-night stand. And in The Green Room's Angels in America plays, she enacted an angel, a nurse, a homeless woman, and more with alertness, sincerity, and comic panache. Here's hoping that Hess' role-hunting, and role-gathering, continues in 2009.

 

Liz J. Millea

Liz J. Millea and the Von Trapp children in The Sound of Music Watching Millea in several 2007 productions at Circa '21, I remember wishing that someone with this much talent and presence would be given more opportunities to display her gifts. In 2008, Circa still kept her plenty busy: Millea appeared in Miss Nelson Is Missing and Snowderella, joined the ensemble of The Full Monty, and, with her fellow Bootleggers, kicked ass in the wait staff's Vaudeville. (The hoofing trio of Millea, Andrea Moore, and Sunshine Ramsey routinely stopped the show.) Yet Millea also ventured outside Circa's walls for My Verona's Inside Out, and in Countryside Community Theatre's The Sound of Music, she was a magical, memorable Maria - her down-to-earth realism and frisky humor a perfect counterpoint to her lovely, soaring soprano. Plus, if you paid close attention, you could even hear her offering a vocal cameo in Harrison Hilltop's Mono-Blogs: Suffering Fools. Millea, it seems, was everywhere in 2008. See what happens when you make wishes for good instead of evil?

 

Eddie Staver III

Eddie Staver III in Fully Committed Saying that Staver is a really good actor is like saying that Quad Cities winters can get really cold. It's true, of course, but you know ... . Duh. In 2008, this frequent one-man show was a literal one in the Green Room's Fully Committed, and offered a thrillingly volatile Sam Byck in the venue's Assassins. Staver was a spectacularly sloshed Christopher Sly for the Prenzie Players' The Taming of the Shrew, and gave a feral, stunningly brave performance in the group's Life's a Dream. Circa '21 recruited him for the summer comedy Empty Nest, and again for autumn's The Full Monty. He provided subtlety and a powerful "Stella-a-a-a!!!" for Harrison Hilltop's A Streetcar Named Desire. And he ended his year opposite Kimberly Furness - Streetcar's Blanche DuBois - in the Curtainbox's dramatic romance Danny & the Deep Blue Sea. If you saw even three of those shows, you have a good idea of Staver's protean talents. If you didn't see even two of them, you were missing out.

 

Chris Walljasper

Chris Walljasper, with Jaci Entwisle, in Promises Promises Like Jaci Entwisle, Walljasper shared his considerable gifts at five venues this year - at one point opposite Entwisle, playing her terrifically charming romantic partner in Playcrafters' Promises, Promises. Yet while Entwisle also had schoolwork to contend with, Walljasper had the co-running of the Harrison Hilltop Theatre (co-owned with Tristan Tapscott), for which this tireless performer/director helmed Proof; Almost, Maine; and a fascinating re-invention of The Odd Couple. He also added to his directorial résumé with My Verona's Inside Out, but Walljasper, in 2008, was only slightly less busy on-stage; beyond Promises, Promises, he was an earnest, energetic Frog in the Green Room's A Year with Frog & Toad, acted and played trombone in Circa '21's Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, and currently entertains as a Circa '21 Bootlegger. And no, if you were wondering, he's actually not related to Circa's performing/directing powerhouse Tom Walljasper. If I ever have kids, though, I'm naming the first one Walljasper Schulz, in the hopes that some of the name's magic rubs off.

 

Ryan Westwood

Ryan Westwood (right), with Jeremy Pack, in Pippin Among my favorite theatrical memories this year is the moment in the Green Room's Assassins when Westwood - who'd been playing the show's genial, guitar-strumming Balladeer - took center stage and morphed physically, emotionally, and damn near instantly into a dead-eyed Lee Harvey Oswald. The bit was pretty representative of Westwood's 2008 output, as he seemed to constantly transform right before our eyes. He preceded Assassins with a marvelous portrayal opposite Sarah Ulloa in the Green Room's john & jen, playing two noticeably dissimilar variations on the same soul. And at St. Ambrose, where Westwood is now a senior, the actor did laudable work in Neil Simon's awful God's Favorite script, was a fantastically engaging Pippin, shook the rafters as a hell-and-brimstone-spewing minister in Inherit the Wind, and was a dazzlingly adorable Horton the Elephant in Seussical Jr., a show that deserved about 100 times more public performances than the two it had. Getting Westwood on stage at least 200 times a year wouldn't be the world's worst idea, either.

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written by Alex Wolking, December 18, 2008
Of the twelve mentioned, I know ten of them. I'm very priviledged to have been able to work with such great performers in 2008! After completing an internship at Playcrafters for "Twelve Angry Men" in May, I stayed busy throughout the summer Stage Managing for: "A Year With Frog and Toad", "Promises, Promises", and "Misery". I consider myself lucky to be able to work with these very gifted people and I hope they continue with their success in 2009! Hopefully, I'll have the chance to work with them again in Cabaret at The Green Room next year!

Thank you so much for making this year memorable! I hope you all have a safe, happy holiday!

-Alex Wolking
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written by Jennifer Kingry, December 18, 2008
I too had the great good fortune to work with many of these performers in 2008, eleven out of twelve to be exact (so, Neil Friberg - call me!) I even got to work with the writer of the preceding comment, Alex Wolking (so I guess that's 12 out of 13?)

Congratulations to all the above for their well-deserved onstage honors. However, I'm also writing to add how impressed I was with the offstage abilities of Ryan Westwood, who was brought on very late in the game as stage manager of Countryside Community Theater's Sound of Music. With only a handful of rehearsals before opening, Ryan made a quick study of the show - meeting everyone, learning names, set changes, light and sound cues, scene flying cues, preparing a promptbook, etc. - then masterfully called the show during every performance. He did it all while remaining unfailingly friendly, courteous, and upbeat. The guy was just a damn pleasure to be around!

After a dozen years working in Hollywood, I'm afraid I'm still less-than-inclined to expect actors to perform so successfully in backstage endeavors, but Ryan set all my prejudices on their ear. If he's any example of what they're teaching at St. Ambrose, that is one heckuva program.

Best to you all,

Jennifer Kingry
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written by Roger Butts, December 23, 2008
Thank you for your profile of the best in theater for 2008. The Green Room, the group I am most familiar with, has been such a great contribution. I saw Angels first in DC, from a box in the Kennedy Center. I can tell you, hands down, the production at the Green Room was a more enjoyable, more enriching experience for me. Kudos to all who make life better by their artistic creativity and passion, and deep gratitude.
Roger Butts, Davenport

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12 Angry Men  A Streetcar Named Desire  A Year with Frog and Toad  Abby Van Gerpen  Adam Michael Lewis  Almost, Maine  Andrea Moore  Andrew Lloyd Webber  Angels in America Millennium Approaches  Angels in America Perestroika  Assassins  Beehive  Black Hawk College  Bob Hanske  Brad Hauskins  Brandon Ford  Buddy the Buddy Holly Story  Chris Walljasper  Chris White  Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse  Clinton Area Showboat Theatre  Closer Than Ever  Countryside Community Theatre  Craig A. Miller  Curtainbox Theatre Company  Danny Henning  Danny and the Deep Blue Sea  Death in Character  Derek Bertelsen  Design for Living  Don Hazen  Don Wooten  Eddie Staver III  Electra  Eleemosynary  Empty Nest  Erin Churchill  Erin Dickerson  Evita  Fully Committed  Genesius Guild  Gods Favorite  Greg O Neill  Harold Truitt  Harrison Hilltop Theatre  Heather Herkelman  Inherit the Wind  Inside Out  J.W. Hertner  Jaci Entwisle  Jack Or, the Submission  Jackie Madunic  James Bleecker  Jason Platt  Jeff De Leon  Jennifer Kingry  Jenny Guse  Jeremy Day  Jeremy Mahr  Jerry Finnegans Sister  Joshua Estrada  Justin Banta  Kimberly Akimbo  Kimberly Furness  Lifes a Dream  Light Up the Sky  Liz J. Millea  Maggie Woolley  Michael J. Yarnell  Misery  Miss Nelson Is Missing  Mono Blogs Suffering Fools  My Verona Productions  Neil Friberg  Neil Simon  New Ground Theatre  Once Upon a Mattress  Pat Flaherty  Patti Flaherty  Pippin  Playcrafters Barn Theatre  Prenzie Players  Promises, Promises  Quad City Music Guild  Richard Blaine  Richmond Hill Barn Theatre  Riverbend Theatre Collective  Romeo and Juliet  Ryan Westwood  Samantha Dubina  Scott Community College  Seussical Jr.  Sheri Hess  Snowderella  St. Ambrose University  Sunshine Ramsey  The Clouds  The Comedy of Errors  The Full Monty  The Green Room Theatre  The Merchant of Venice  The Odd Couple  The Sound of Music  The Taming of the Shrew  The Woman in Black  Timber Lake Playhouse  Tom Walljasper  Tristan Layne Tapscott  Tyson Danner  Vaudeville  Zachary Gray  john and jen