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Critical Mass: Mike Schulz and Thom White Discuss Area Theatre in 2012 - Page 3 PDF Print E-mail
Theatre - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Monday, 31 December 2012 06:00

JJ Johnson, John Donald O'Shea, Jay Rakus, Leigh VanWinkle, Sue Somes, and Elisabeth Gonzales (back row); Lauren VanSpeybroeck, Katie Osborne, and Laila Haley (front row) in Quad City Music Guild's Meet Me in St. LouisI think part of the reason you and I disagreed on more productions than usual this year is that I saw several shows where I loved the material but felt the quality of the productions did not match the quality of that material. Where do you stand on that? If you see a show that you love to death – where you love the material to death – is it gonna be a good production for you even if it’s pulled off disappointingly?

I think the reverse actually happens more often. Like, I hate Meet Me in St. Louis. Hate it. Hate it! I can’t say “hate” enough. But I quite adored Quad City Music Guild’s production of it this summer. Maybe, with that material, there was nowhere to go but up. [Laughs.] But I could’ve just sat there and thought, “Ugh, I can’t even endure this,” and it turned out to be really good.

But I’m having trouble thinking of something I really quite love that maybe didn’t meet expectations. The problem is that I haven’t seen a lot of these shows that I love. I mean, I love the music to Spring Awakening. It’s one of my absolute favorites. Whenever I’m depressed, that’s my go-to soundtrack. And then I get more depressed. [Laughs.] But I hadn’t seen the show before this year, and the production I saw [at the Center for Living Arts] was great.

And Xanadu. I know the Broadway soundtrack back and forth, but until the District Theatre’s production this summer, I’d never seen it staged. And that show was great!

Well, it’s wonderful that you maybe haven’t been disappointed in that way. But I was curious about that, because every once in a while I do see a show that I’m madly in love with that I don’t think gets the production it deserves, and then I just get sad.

You’d seen Next to Normal before this summer?

I hadn’t. But that’s one of those shows where I have the soundtrack pretty much memorized. And that was also one of the productions this year that I wish I liked more than I did. I teared up at the [District Theatre] show, because that material is just so wrenching, and I loved Kelly Lohrenz in it ... .

Oh God yeah.

... but I kind of wanted more. I wanted it to hurt more. But like I said, I don’t have another production of Next to Normal to base that feeling on, and comparing the District’s show to the Broadway soundtrack isn’t fair. I’m glad you liked Xanadu, though.

I loved Xanadu. I love Xanadu. It’s just so light and airy and silly and happy and magical. But I don’t like the Gene Kelly character, at all, on the stage. I don’t really care for him in the movie either – I find him annoying – but making him out to be kind of a bad, smarmy businessman? Ugh.

Joseph Maubach, Joel Collins, Tracy Pelzer-Timm, Jenny Winn, Sara King, Becca Meumann, and Linda Ruebling in the District Theatre's XanaduNot a good choice?

No. And I forgot to mention Mark [Ruebling], who played that role, in my review because I just forgot about the character! With reviews, I tend to have a kind of a flow in mind – how I want to start, and where to go from there. And sometimes, like with that one, I don’t even really look at the notes I’ve taken. I ’d taken quite a few notes for Xanadu, but when it was time to write, I was like, “No, I have it all in my head.” And I was happy with how it was written, but I did forget about the character, and so Mark didn’t get the credit that I thought he deserved. He played it well, but unfortunately he was playing a character I just don’t care about. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] I’m sorry I missed that production. And I’m sorry I missed New Ground’s Beauty Queen of Leenane, because I love Susan Perrin-Sallak and Melissa Anderson Clark, and I love that Martin McDonagh script. It’s so dark and funny, and those characters are so awful. In a great way. New Ground’s Mr. Marmalade was also dark and awful and hilarious.

Yes! You saw that one?

I did. I thought Jess [Denney] and Pat [Flaherty] were tremendous in that show. You did mention in your review, though, one part of it that almost crossed over into offensive territory. Jess plays a little girl in that show, and she kills her imaginary baby ... .


... and she comes in with ketchup smeared all over her ... .

It wasn’t so much the “murder” that bothered me. It was more that this is was all coming from the mind of an elementary-school girl, and it was too jarring to me. In retrospect, thinking about, “Well, something in this girl’s experience has allowed her to think these terrible things ... .” Maybe, having more time to mull it over, I might not have found it as offensive. But at the time, it was too much, you know? Even though the show was dark, it was fun dark. And then that happened, and it wasn’t fun anymore.

Pat Flaherty and Jessica Denney in New Ground Theatre's Mr. MarmaladeDo you think it’s inherently problematic when shows are populated by awful characters? Pat Flaherty’s Mr. Marmalade, the little girl’s imaginary friend, is horrible. Horrible. That’s the joke of the play – that this kid has the worst kind of imaginary friend anyone could ever have. And you’ve mentioned in many of your reviews that you really respond to characters who are kind, and inherently likable. But don’t you find those kinds of characters on stage ... well ... kind of boring? [Laughs.]

No, because I think that it’s important that there be a connection, and that kind of likability is often my connection to a character. If I can like you, whether or not I agree with your actions, then we’re in, you know? I now have investment in this production, or greater interest, because I like you.

But how about something like Glengarry Glen Ross, where every character in it is a jerk? How do you find your entry into that world?

Well, that’s a comedy, and I think in that case that’s the connection. “I may not like you, but I find you hilarious.” With a comedy, they can all be hateful, awful people, and if they’re funny about it ... . Well, God of Carnage.

Sure. Those characters are all awful people.

They’re all awful, but God, is that a funny play! Or in Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley isn’t likable, but he’s dynamic, so there’s something about him that’s interesting. So there doesn’t always have to be that likability for a connection to be made. It’s more important for middle-of-the-road characters. You know, if you’re not funny or dynamic, then I’d better at least like you. [Laughs.]

Fair enough. At Playcrafters, as I recall, you weren’t crazy about the scripts for Titanic Aftermath and Moving. Playcrafters’ If It’s Monday, This Must Be Murder, though ... . That’s one of those titles that’s just Not Meant for You, right? [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Oh, the mystery-comedies ... ! There have been a few that I’ve been surprised by, but I’ll be honest: If I have to go see a murder-comedy and I don’t want to go, that’s when reviewing is a job. It’s work. But I realize that they do these shows because they sell tickets. There is an audience. People do like them. So when I review them, I still see things through my eyes, of course, but I do try to keep in mind, “People like this stuff for a reason, so there’s got to be something here.”

Sydney Crumbleholme and Ben Klocke in the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's Anne of AvonleaI’m bummed that I didn’t get to see Anne of Avonlea, because I love Sydney Crumbleholme, who played Anne. I adored her in that role when Playcrafters did Anne of Green Gables.

Yes! It’s really exciting, too, to see her growing as an actor. Because I also remember her from the original, and she’s different as an actor now than she was then. Age and practice, I think, and maturity have changed her – changed the depth of her interpretation of the character. So that was fantastic to see her again in the same role. To see how she’s grown as an actor and a person.

And Playcrafters’ The Christmas Express, it seemed, you were pleasantly surprised by.

I don’t care so much for Christmas productions because they tend to be a little forced in spirit. Like, schmaltzy. But in this one, Nancy Teerlinck’s character was so sarcastic and bitter, in a funny way, that it helped offset that holly-jolly tone, and the magic that was part of the story was actually more tolerable because of that. The show had this nice balance of positive and negative – there was this crotchety character, and this fun character, and this happy character, and this mean character ... .

It’s the salty/sweet idea. We like that blend. It’s the reason we put chocolate on pretzels.

Yeah. Christmas Express was salty/sweet. That’s one I would see again.

And that same weekend, you actually got a double dose of holiday plays, because you saw A Nice Family Gathering at Richmond Hill. That’s a Thanksgiving play, though, right?

It is. You know what was funny, though? I went to it thinking it was called A Nice Family Christmas, and as I was watching it, I kept thinking, “This is all about Thanksgiving. Why did they call it that?” [Laughs.] I finally looked at the program, and I was like, “Oh-h-h-h. Okay.” Otherwise I would’ve had more reason to say it was mistitled. [Laughs.]

Otherwise, at Richmond Hill this year, you liked Greater Tuna ... .

Yes. I saw Tuna Christmas at the District Theatre last year and thought it was hysterical. But Greater Tuna is more ... sentimental, maybe? It has more to do with the emotions of the townspeople, and it’s more endearing toward small-town life instead of being hysterically funny. And so that threw me, and in my review I thought it fair to mention, “If you’ve seen one of the other Tunas, this one isn’t the same.”

I meant for it to come across that way – “it’s not bad, it’s just not hysterical” – but for some people, like that commenter, I guess it didn’t come across that way. Which is unfortunate, because it’s a good script, and it was a good show, and the two actors – John VanDeWoestyne and Bruce Carmen – were really good. Really good.

Mollie Schmelzer, Jackie Patterson, Renaud Haymon, Taylor McKean, and Jordan L. Smith in the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's The Curious SavageHow about Richmond Hill’s The Curious Savage?

That’s the one that takes place in the mental hospital, and what I liked about it was that there was very little setup; we just jumped right in. The playwright, and the people involved in the show, didn’t treat us like idiots. They assumed we could figure things out as we go. I like that. I want to be treated like an intelligent adult.

On that subject, you saw Gore Vidal’s The Best Man at the District Theatre. It’s about a presidential election, and you saw it on election night.

You know, full disclosure, I kind of resented seeing a show that night. I know I could’ve chosen to go on Thursday or Friday instead, but I prefer to go opening nights, just because I think it's important to get the review to you as quickly as possible. But it was the first election night where I wasn’t working in a newsroom in 12 years, and I really wanted to follow the presidential election. I just wanted to sit and watch CNN the whole night, and so I was like, “Aw-w-w, I have to go to this play ... !”

So I went in a bit of a surly mood, even though I knew it was my fault for picking that night. But then I quite enjoyed it. And they did this fun thing, where Joe Maubach set up this screen in the lobby area with a map of the election results, so people could go out at intermission and see what was happening.


And I was checking results on my phone at intermission – not during the show [laughs] – so it turned out to be fun. It was kind of fun to have this collective there of people all interested in same thing.

Avenue Q, I’ve got to admit, might be my favorite show the District has ever done. I really, really liked that one. It felt legitimately joyous, like their first production of Rocky Horror back when they were the Harrison Hilltop. And it had Erin Churchill.

Oh my God, Erin is phenomenal.

Erin Churchill, Bryan Tank, and Kelly Lohrenz in the District Theatre's Avenue QShe needs to be in everything. Seriously. Just put her in every show.

Even if she’s just standing at the wall in the back. I’ll buy a ticket! [Laughs.] I really think the District Theatre came into its own this year, in terms of its identity. Last year, they were really getting into it, but this year ... . This might be offensive to other people, but if I were to stop reviewing, the District Theatre is the first company I would go to for season tickets. Because I liked everything they put on their docket this year.

Although next year, they are going in a little different direction with The Tempest, and ... . I just think they’ve got something really good going, and I hope they don’t muck it up by starting to test other waters that they maybe shouldn’t. Like Shakespeare. You know, I’m a little hesitant about that.

Yeah, I am, too. But still, bless ’em for saying, “We’re gonna take the chance and try a Shakespeare.” I mean, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But if it does, great!

And I would hope it does. You know, I don’t want any theatre to fail, and of course companies should try to expand and grow. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to be concerned about what you’re doing when you already have a system that works so well.

The District’s Company had so many great performances in it. Christina Myatt and Jenny Winn and VanDeWoestyne and Christopher Tracy and Brian [Nelson] and Angela Elliott, who was amazing as Joanne ... . And Erin Lounsberry? As the ditzy flight attendant? God, I loved her. For me, that character was suddenly so much more interesting than she’d ever been before.

Yes, that was not a character I would have cast Erin as, and she was just great.

That’s the joy of having smart actors in roles you don’t expect to see them in. Different things will happen – weird, wonderful stuff can happen.