|Critical Mass: Mike Schulz and Thom White Discuss Area Theatre in 2012|
|Theatre - Feature Stories|
|Written by Mike Schulz|
|Monday, 31 December 2012 06:00|
For our third-annual conversation on the Year in Theatre, Thom White – the Reader’s chief theatre reviewer – and I thought we’d shake things up a bit. So instead of meeting for an hours-long breakfast to discuss the area stage scene, we met for an hours-long dinner to discuss the area stage scene.
And while I managed to keep things lively by spilling a completely full glass of water not 10 minutes after sitting down, we also managed to touch on many of the varied experiences that Thom (occasionally accompanied by his partner’s daughter Madison) and/or I had during another eventful year for fans of the theatre. Pack a lunch, sit back, and dive in ... .
Mike Schulz: So what are your immediate thoughts about the 2012 theatre year?
Thom White: I almost want to say, with caution, that last year  was just a great year for theatre, and then this year was ... . I mean, it was good, and there were a few productions that really stood out. But I also think there were a few more shows that I just didn’t like – more than in previous years.
Hey, at least your reviews only got a minimal number of [negative] comments on the Reader Web-site this year. [Laughs.]
What was that one?
I made a reference, in the review, to the character of Warner, but it said “Warren.” My second reference to him had him as “Warner,” but the first was “Warren,” and somebody commented, “If you’re someone who’s seen the play and watched the movie and loves all this stuff about Legally Blonde, how would you not know this was wrong? You should read the program.”
And I thought that was funny, because if the commenter had realized I got it correct with the second reference, it was obviously a typo. I mean, hello! [Laughs.]
In the comment on Greater Tuna, what the person said was that I should get over my abject negativity, or something like that. And at that time in the year – I looked it up – I had reviewed 23 productions: I loved 10 of them, I liked seven, and I only disliked six. A three to-one-ratio is not abject negativity.
Both of those comments were actually really easy to shrug off. I mean, I liked Greater Tuna. [Laughs.] But when I looked at the Legally Blonde comment, I saw that three people pushed the plus sign next to it [liking the comment], and that was what bothered me. I was like, “Wait a minute. This commenter went out of his way to be rude, and three people agree with him? I don’t know what to make of that.” It took me a few nights to be upset about that before I got over it.
Well, you got so few of them compared to years past that I wanted to ask: Were you consciously trying not to get anyone riled up with your reviews this year? Is that something you think about more now, the idea of, “That opinion is gonna engender some dispute and maybe make people mad, so I’m not even gonna say it”?
I don’t know. Maybe. There have been times where, when I’m writing, I’ve come up with what I thought was a clever turn of phrase that was mean but funny, and I didn’t go with it because it was mean, and I could get my meaning across in a softer way.
The only thing of yours I remember reading that seemed on the verge of, like, “Uh-oh” was when you ended your review of Circa’s Spreading It Around with a reference to manure. [Laughs.]
You know, with that review, I put that line in there and thought you would edit it out. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Were you hoping I would?
No. I thought, “Well, if it gets by Mike, it’s okay.” I have thought a couple times, with that review, that that ending was pretty harsh. But I really hated that production.
That script was pretty terrible.
The show did have some good things in it. I loved the set, and I thought the casting was pretty good. ... .
I thought Lora [Adams] did some nice things in it. For sure.
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
And Brad [Hauskins] was funny.
Yes. But that script – ugh. You know, I think with a professional theatre company, there’s a standard that needs to be a bit higher than with community theatre, so if you produce a stinker, it should probably be called out.
What else do you remember from this year? Certain performances or shows you really, really liked?
Well, I immediately think of [the QC Theatre Workshop’s] Red. Which you were in. So, you know ... .
Yeah, we’ll scoot off that subject fast. But thank you.
Well, if we can talk about that for a moment, it’s always kind of awkward to review you, because you edit my reviews.
Sure. And I add in a few adjectives and things. “Mike was really good in this production ... !” [Laughs.]
“Really, really, really, really good!” [Laughs.] I will say that if I err, I think it’s on the side of being more critical than less critical. I try not to tone down my opinions, but I do want to make sure that I don’t come across as being too pro-Mike, because you’re my supervisor. But with Red, everything was just phenomenal. I mean, the whole production was just fantastic. I’m looking forward to more.
[The Playcrafters Barn Theatre’s] The 39 Steps wasn’t “high-art theatre,” but oh my gosh, it was so funny! It had just enough slapstick, and it was so perfectly cast ... . I thoroughly enjoyed that show. I took Madison, who’s nine, and she loved it, too – she thought it was hilarious. We just had a ball.
Come to think of it, that review got a comment, too, saying that I praised Jason Platt too much, and should’ve spent more time on other actors in the show. And I was just like, “Well, maybe. But please ... .”
“It’s Jason Platt, for Pete’s sake. I’m gonna talk about him.”
Yeah. He really did deserve the praise. And I also thought Legally Blonde was fantastic.
I absolutely loved that show’s female leads [Samantha Pauly and Sara King]. They were wonderful.
The one who played the hairdresser ... .
Yeah. Sara King. Not the Sara King at the District Theatre, though. The other one. [Laughs.]
Right. [Laughs.] She was also in a children’s show at Circa – The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley – and was remarkable in that one, too.
And in [Circa ’21’s] Smokey Joe’s Café. She had some really fine numbers.
Oh yeah, she did. I hope she comes back to the area.
I quite liked Parade at the District Theatre. But if I may admit ... . You know, I’m not perfect. I have flaws, and one of them is that I sometimes get caught up in the emotion of a show, and your personal emotions can kind of blind you to a show’s flaws. And I was just so taken with that musical that, after we talked and you’d mentioned a few problems you’d had with it that I thought maybe were true ... . I wouldn’t say that I’d go back and rescind any of my praise, because I still think the show deserved its praise, but I don’t know ... . Usually we agree, and this year we disagreed more often than usual.
Actually, we did. And yeah, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Parade. I like the material a lot, but I didn’t think they quite found the emotion that they needed for that show to really play. It had some lovely things in it, but I was just ... unmoved, I guess? But hey – that happens.
And that’s what I love. When people make comments like “I thought this show was great, and how dare you not praise it enough,” I just think, “Well, we’re different people.” I love that about theatre, that we each get a different reaction. Someone may love something, someone may hate it, someone else may think it’s okay, and that’s fantastic. It is not a negative that people have different opinions. It’s beautiful.
One thing that happened in 2012 was that you got to be on stage again.
Yes! We both did!
In the District Theatre’s reading of 8. Was that fun for you?
It was fun! I felt so self-conscious, though, because there were all these fantastic actors, and fantastic people – people I esteem highly in local theatre – and most of them I hadn’t actually talked to before. So going into that first rehearsal, I was just like, “Oh my gosh, do some of these people hate me? Do they want to tar and feather me? I don’t remember what I said about this person in my last review!”
And I know you’ve had this experience, where you wonder if people are going to be judging you more harshly because you review others. Like, “You’d better be the best actor we see up there ... !”
So that was nerve-racking. But everyone there was so kind, and there was such a spirit there ... .
Yeah, and you’re right about the talent. John VanDeWoestyne, who’s just so awesome, and Tom and Shelley Walljasper, and Bryan Tank ... . And I can’t believe I finally got to meet Jenny Winn, whom I’d never met before, which is kind of ridiculous – that I’ve been a fan of hers for so many years and our paths never crossed.
Yes. She’s such a talent. And so kind.
And how fun to watch [area theatre reviewers] David Burke and Jonathan Turner up there! It really was a cool event.
I loved David Burke as the bad guy! [Laughs.] He and I get along, and we often sit together at shows; we don’t discuss our thoughts or anything, but we often sit together, and so I say that in fun. But it was just so neat to see him as this kind of this villainous character. He was great.
And I got to be married to Pat Flaherty in the show, which was like a dream come true.
Right? [Laughs.] Though Patti [Flaherty] might have something to say about that.
She might. [Laughs.] Another thing I was thinking about that happened this year, of course, was our losing Brian Nelson, who passed away in the spring. That was just horrible and shocking. Brian’s one of those rare people you can’t say anything bad about. At all. Did you know him personally?
I did not. But he was such a talent, and I knew of his reputation – his kind heart, which came through on stage even. Sometimes you can just see someone’s soul, even when they’re pretending to be somebody else. And it felt like his was something I could just see. It was obvious that this guy was something special.
Yeah, he just exuded warmth. A lovely man. An amazing man.
You attended his visitation?
I heard that so many people came to see him, and that’s a great testament to the quality of who he was as a human being. Much loved.
Did you have any just ... odd theatre experiences this year? Because I have to tell you my favorite story of what happened to me ... .
Some friends and I went to see the University of Iowa’s production of Big Love this spring. And we’re in the last 10 minutes of this really intense, dramatic scene and the house lights suddenly come up, and the stage manager gets on the intercom and says, in this really nervous voice, “I’m sorry. But there are tornado-warning sirens going on all over Iowa City, so we’re going to have to stop the show, and everyone has to go directly to the basement.”
Oh my gosh. [Laughs.]
And my buddy Tom just lets out this soul-wrenching, “No-o-o-o-o!!!” [Laughs.] He was so into the show that as soon as it stopped, and they threatened not to do the last 10 minutes, he just reflexively yelled at the top of his lungs; he was so upset. And it was just the funniest and coolest damned thing in the world. It really spoke to how important theatre can be when you’re invested in it.
So what happened?
They scooted us all down to the basement, and we got to leave after 45 minutes or something, and they finished the show. But apparently, the cast was, like, this close to doing the rest of the show in the basement for us. It was closing night for the production and everything.
And it was a great show?
Yeah, it was great. But that whole night was unbelievable. Any nights you especially remember?
Well, when I took Madison to The 39 Steps, she wanted desperately to sit in the front row, and I ... . No. You know, every time I go to a Prenzie Players show, I panic, because I’m worried that I’m going to be pulled into the show. Literally pulled into it. And I don’t want that. I think it’s fun to watch when that happens, and I laugh and love it, but no. Please don’t put me on stage. Please please please.
And so Playcrafters makes me nervous, because you’re practically on stage in the front row ... .
Some audience members’ feet are.
Yes! So we sat in the second row – that was my concession. And then at intermission, she asked, “Ple-e-ease, can I go to the front row?” So I let her, and she sat down next to this older gentleman who talked to her during the rest of intermission, and they shared little “Oh, that was funny!” exchanges through the rest of the second half. I was nervous, because I didn’t know this person, but she seemed to be having a good time. And then I felt bad for not sitting in the front row with her. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I can’t sit in the front row either. Like you, I feel like I’m on stage, and if I’m gonna be on stage, I’d prefer to be playing a character.
I want to be lost in a show, and if I’m thinking about how close I am to the stage, I can’t get lost, you know?
Absolutely. Tell me about your getting to also review dance this year. You reviewed two Ballet Quad Cities productions ... .
Yes! I seriously loved the Valentine’s Day production Love Stories. I studied dance in college – ballet and tap. And even though I never was a connoisseur of dance or whatnot, I love the emotion of dance, and the pieces in Love Stories were just so moving.
In general, I like more modern, more emotionally interpretive dance. I mean, those classical, very strict, often more athletic versions of ballet are okay for me. But Love Stories was less typical of ballet, and I was just so moved, and so stirred ... . It was an easy review to write. Although, actually, it was and it wasn’t, because I knew exactly what I wanted to get across, but was so nervous about saying it in a way that would get that across. It was my first time trying it.
Then I reviewed The Sleeping Beauty, and it was all classical dance. And when I wrote the review, I focused on the acting, as if it was a regular piece of musical theatre, because I just wasn’t taken with the choreography. That’s not to say the choreography was bad, and maybe I was the only one in the audience who wasn’t moved by the dance. But it was hard for me to write about that, because I quite like Ballet Quad Cities and don’t want to let them down.
I don’t mean that in terms of opinion; if I don’t like a show, I’m not going to say I do. But I worried that I wouldn’t convey my feelings clearly enough, or “poetically” enough, to live up to that company’s high standard.
The caliber of talent.
Well, you found things to write about and praise. And you even found things to praise, God love you, in the Internet Players’ The Guardian, which might be the most staggeringly amateurish thing I’ve ever seen that was produced on a “professional” level. You know what I mean?
Oh my God. Yes.
It was kind of stunning. That scene where the guys were putting invisible golf balls? I’m sorry – the two scenes where they did that? And the “ethnic” puppet who said, “It’s hard out here for a pimp!”? I wanted to run screaming.
And the interpretive dance! Out of nowhere!
But you still found positive things to say about that show.
I’m so glad you brought that up, because [Internet Players founder] Nathan Porteshawver ... . I don’t know him, but I liked what he was trying to do. I remember seeing [the Internet Players’ The Tragedy of] Sarah Klein and thinking there was a talent there that really just needed a lot of practice and a lot of refinement. But there was something there. And I wish he would’ve produced more, so he could get some feedback from reviewers and audience members and whatnot. Because I think he could grow from that.
And so I really wanted to like The Guardian, because I liked what Nathan was trying to do, and I wanted him to succeed. But it was so bad. All around. And I don’t want ever want to completely trash anything in a review, but with that show, it was hard to come up with other things to say.
As I recall, you didn’t mention any of the show’s actors by name except for Gage [McCalester], the little kid, whom you liked.
Yes. That was intentional. And that’s kind of unfortunate, because there were some good actors in that show. It was just that script. Nobody could swim in that.
Actually, if I fluffed any review this year, it would be the one for [Augustana College’s] Bat Boy. I was honest about how I felt, but I praised some things, and that praise was actually relative to the overall production being just bad. But I think my praise came across as “Oh, well, this was good, and this was good ... ,” and these things weren’t always good. They were just better than other things in the show.
I wrestled with that review, but I thought that writing harshly about this production was warranted, because everything else in the season had been really good. I knew they had the talent to do better. I did like the Bat Boy himself [Calvin Vo], though. He was good. And I remember liking the set, too, because it reminded me of Beetlejuice. The mother from Beetlejuice who buys the house. It was her taste. [Laughs.]
This doesn’t apply to Bat Boy, but in general, it seems that the productions you don’t care for seem to be ones with what you feel are weak scripts. In the end, is the script what will most often kill a production for you? Like, if you’re stuck with a script you think is weak, there’s little that can be done to make the show worthwhile for you? I was thinking of shows like [Playcrafters’] Titanic Aftermath or [Richmond Hill’s] A Nice Family Gathering ... .
Yeah, maybe. With Nice Family Gathering, the show was actually well-staged, it was well-acted, it was well-directed ... and that helped raise the script a bit. I wish I had the chance to review scripts more.
You just got to, a bit, with [the District Theatre’s] Altar Call.
That was great, because it was by a [formerly] local writer [Melissa McBain], and so you have more reason to delve into the script. Like with Rent, why bother? It’s been out for decades.
You also got to with The Guardian, of course, and with New Ground Theatre’s Bad Habits, that collection of one-acts by local playwrights ... .
I love new work, and writing about new work, and I would hope that playwrights would see criticism as an opportunity to grow. In terms of reviewing, I have a tendency to lean toward acting, and it could be argued that I neglect too many other things because I’m so focused on the acting. So when there are local playwrights to review, like in Bad Habits, I know that I can talk about the script, and I should talk about it, and I’m able to give it more attention than I would normally. Bad Habits was fun to write about. Michael Callahan’s piece in that production was very disturbing.
Was that the monologue with Patti [Flaherty]?
Yes. And I remember, right after the show, the grumblings in the audience – people saying, “Oh, I didn’t like that one! That was so disturbing!” And I was like, “You were moved.” And that’s why I praised it. Because yeah, I was disgusted and disturbed, too. But we were supposed to feel that way, and those feelings were valid, and that was more emotion than I got from anything else that night.
Michael did his job, and Patti did her job.
Yes. They did. So I wanted to tell those people, “Don’t write this off because you didn’t care for the content.”
One thing I’ve noticed in your reviews of locally written works is that you wish more dialogue sounded the way people actually speak.
Could you be a little more specific about that? Because I think I know what you mean, but all stage dialogue is, of course, inherently stagy.
The only time I bring that up is when dialogue really doesn’t sound like what humans would say. Like, when it sounds like it’s out of a poem. Or when dialogue sounds forced because the words the actors are saying are unnatural in conversation, and the actors then have trouble delivering it in a way that sounds natural. You can just tell when a line is too artsy, or too heady, or too cliché ... . It’s wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t say “wrong.” But it’s off.
One of the core things I look for when I’m looking at acting is that I don’t want to be able to tell you’re acting. Unless there’s something intentionally campy about the performance, or something, I shouldn’t be able to tell that you’re pretending to be something else. And it’s the same thing with dialogue. I shouldn’t be able to tell ... .
That these are words on a page?
But when you say, “I don’t want to know that you’re acting,” that could be misunderstood – like only the most naturalistic performances really work for you. Can’t someone give a performance where they’re clearly acting – Pat Flaherty as King Lear, say – but you’re so rapt in the character that you’re buying it regardless?
Absolutely. And of course, with Shakespeare, I could say the same thing – “Nobody talks that way.” [Laughs.] Maybe, with acting, it’s not so much “I don’t want to see you acting” as it is “I want to see you turn yourself into the character.” Which I don’t think is as hard as some people may think. You know, some people are just phenomenal at it. But with some actors who maybe aren’t as great, there’s still a naturalism to the way they take on characters – it feels like they become another person. I don’t think it takes a “fantastic actor” to avoid – .
To avoid falseness.
I 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.
Not 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.
Do 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.”
I’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.
How 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.
She 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.
There were a lot of big musicals – classic musicals – staged this year. Countryside Community Theatre alone had The King & I and Singin’ in the Rain. I mean, they don’t get much more iconic than that. How did those shows go over for you?
Good and ... iffy. The King & I was really impressive. Just flat-out really impressive in scale and in interpretation of character, particularly the king. Because too many people I’ve seen try to emulate ... um ... .
Yul Brynner. [Laughs.] I was going to say Telly Savalas.
[Laughs.] Oh my God, I’m so glad you didn’t.
Yul Brynner. And the actor in Countryside’s production [Jonathan Schrader] didn’t try to be Yul Brynner at all. So the whole show had kind of a different tone, you know? He wasn’t so much “I am right” and “We’re doing things my way” – he was a little more befuddled, and a little more thoughtful, like he was just starting to really think about things. It was really wonderful to see the actor’s subtext, because he wasn’t Yul Brynner.
I’m glad about that, because that’s a show that, for me, can be so good if it’s done well and so deadening if it hasn’t been re-thought at all – if it’s the same old King & I that you’ve always seen.
I feel that way about anything I’ve seen before. I don’t want to see the same thing. I want to see what you do with it.
And Singin’ in the Rain is another show where you can feel “I’ve seen it before,” but if the production’s got some imagination behind it ... .
Countryside’s did and it didn’t. Christina Myatt, who directed the show, made some smart choices with the film scenes. They actually projected black-and-while films that were made by the actors, and the flow between the films and what was going on on-stage worked ... . It was seamless, the way it moved back and forth between the movie and the characters, and it wasn’t a distraction, which it could’ve been. I guess doing it that way was kind of an obvious choice, but it was one I hadn’t seen before. It was a creative obvious choice.
But what disappointed me about that production – and “disappointed” may be a strong word – was that Christina, who also choreographed the show, chose to use Gene Kelly’s film choreography. I’m sure she tweaked it here and there, but I thought, “She’s choreographed other shows, and she’s good – why wouldn’t she do original stuff?” So I was a little like, “I’ve seen this,” and I wanted to see more of her work.
That must be hard to determine: When do you kind of need to give the audience the routine they expect? Like with The King & I, in the “Shall We Dance” number, I think you have to do that huge, romantic spin in the circle. But aside from the standing on the lamppost and the splashing in the puddles, how well-acquainted are most people with the specific moves in the “Singin’ in the Rain” number? Do you have to follow the original choreography that faithfully?
In “Make ’Em Laugh,” I would say you do have to stand on the couch and make it tip over. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Fair enough. And I assume you’ve heard the news about Countryside’s show next summer? Les Misérables? What do you think of that choice?
I love Les Miz. I’ve seen that, I think, five times, and I think that’s a very special piece of theatre. And part of me wants to say there’s nothing that should be too sacred to do [locally]. But for me ... . I don’t know. That’s one of the first big musicals I ever saw, and it’s so good, and it would be so easy for it to not meet expectations. I don’t mean that as anything negative toward Countryside, or anyone else who would do Les Miz, but o-o-o-oh ... . Please don’t ruin it! [Laughs.] Please! And it has to be done on a really grand scale. I don’t think you can minimalize that show.
I don’t know if you can do that show anywhere around here but at Countryside or Music Guild. I mean, with Les Miz, I want to hear a big-ass chorus, damn it ... .
... and they can get a big-ass chorus.
They sure can. So yeah. I think Countryside can definitely pull it off.
Music Guild, as usual, had some biggies this year. Meet Me in St. Louis we discussed. Not your favorite material, as I recall. [Laughs,]
The production I liked. [Laughs.]
And they did Hello, Dolly! Do you have a fondness for that show, in general? Personally, I’ve never gotten the appeal. Except in WALL•E.
[Laughs.] I like the songs, and while I can’t actually sit down and watch the entire film in one sitting, I like some scenes ... the ones with no Barbra Streisand. But it has some scenes that I think are funny. It’s fine. Thank God Barnaby and ... the other one [Cornelius] ... are in it. [Laughs.] Those guys were so entertaining [at Music Guild].
Bryan [Tank] and Tristan [Tapscott], right?
Yes. They were great. They really camped it up.
And Music Guild’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels you liked?
I’m glad you finally got to see that one, because that show cracks me up. I finally got to see, at Music Guild, [The 25th Annual] Putnam County Spelling Bee, which I had never seen before, and which you saw at the Clinton Showboat this year.
Love that show. Loved the soundtrack before, but it’s so well-written. Really smart.
I think what’s fun about Spelling Bee is the soundtrack is more like typical sunny Broadway, and then the book is ... really not. [Laughs] It’s more satirical, a little darker ... . It’s atypical Broadway.
Right. It’s snarky and a little snide ... . It’s that salty/sweet thing again.
Yeah. A nice blend.
I know you liked that production at the Showboat, and since I reviewed Into the Woods and Bye Bye Birdie – and enjoyed them both a lot – Little Shop of Horrors was the only other thing you saw in Clinton this summer.
I love that show. I mean, I wouldn’t list it with Les Miz or anything, but I think the show is just so much fun, and the music is so much fun ... . If Spring Awakening is my sad soundtrack, Little Shop is my happy soundtrack. And I liked the Showboat’s idea of a female Audrey II, and I could see what the director was trying for, but I just ... . I thought the production was off. I remember the street urchins ... . Is that what they’re called?
I think so, yeah.
The street urchins [Monique Abry, Heather Botts, and Nyla Watson] were very good. They were very entertaining, they were great in harmony, they were flashy and showy and fun to watch. But I just thought Seymour was too much of a stereotype, and the puppetry was way off, and it just had no ... . There was a little shop, but there was no horror.
Did you miss not going to all the Showboat productions this summer?
I really did! Because I love watching the same actors in show after show after show every two weeks. You get a little microcosm of an actor’s talent watching them in multiple roles. I think that’s so fantastic.
That’s how I felt watching four shows in a row at the Timber Lake Playhouse, which had another crazy-good ensemble this summer. Guys & Dolls and Working were great, and even Footloose, which is a show I don’t care for, was made far more bearable than it should’ve been. It was a ton of fun.
I think that’s really saying something, when not-great material can be raised to a higher level – a much higher level – like that.
Exactly. And Circa '21 usually casts really great freaking people, so shows like Spreading It Around and Miracle on 34th Street are elevated, too. Although the bluegrass musical Southern Crossroads was one of those productions where I really liked both the talent and the material.
Oh, Southern Crossroads! I was very charmed by that one. I went in worried because I don’t ... . Well, I don’t dislike that [bluegrass] genre, but it’s not one of my favorites, and the music was all previously existing songs, so I didn’t know how I’d take that show. But, oh my God, that cast performed the hell out of it.
I think the show itself is fine, it’s fun, but they really elevated it. I just loved that production. From beginning to end. I was never bored.
They’re bringing it back next year before it goes on tour. And I think it’s cool that they’re touring that, because it kind of feels like a touring-company show.
It does. And if there’s a Circa show to tour, that one makes sense. I think that would have appeal throughout the country.
Personally, I think the Bootleggers should tour their World Goes ’Round revue that they did this summer, because it was freaking fantastic. But then, you know, there’d be no one left to wait tables, so I guess that’s a non-starter. [Laughs.] Smokey Joe’s Café you liked?
Even though you’re not a big fan of jukebox musicals?
No, but that show really isn’t ... . It’s more of a concert than a musical.
And you’re kind of in love with Circa’s kids’ shows, I know.
I love them. Love them. They’re consistently great.
I like this literary bent they’re going with these days, doing children’s musicals based on popular children’s books.
It’s absolutely brilliant. I often take Madison with me to those shows, and she’s usually like, “Oh, I have that book,” or “Oh, I want to get that book.” She knows them all. And the current show, Freckleface Strawberry, is so adorable, and there are such good life lessons in it. I needed this when I was little. Why didn’t Julianne Moore write this three decades ago?
You wouldn’t be a grumpy theatre critic then!
That’s right! [Laughs.]
Speaking of kids’ theatre, I didn’t get to tell you that I saw Alice in Wonderland at St. Ambrose [University]. It ran only two performances, but it was so much fun that after seeing the show on Saturday, I saw it again on Sunday.
Yeah! It just had some amazing visuals – Dan Rairdin-Hale, who directed it, did some really cool stuff with black lights and these huge, beautiful masks ... . It was really something. And I saw all of Davenport Junior Theatre's shows this year – Mia the Melodramatic, Robin Hood, and Beauty & the Beast – and had a ball at all of them. It’s pretty awesome that we generally get such a variety of quality kids’ entertainment in the area.
In terms of college theatre, we talked about Augustana’s Bat Boy, and again, it would be awkward to talk about How I Learned to Drive, since I was in it ... .
That one was so great.
Thanks. I was proud of that show. Loved working with that gang. And Augie’s The Arsonists was interesting for you, as I recall?
Yeah. That one had really good lighting effects – the fires and stuff. They do really well with multimedia on that stage. I wish more local theatres used multimedia, because it’s an easy way – well, an “easy” way – for a show to look sharper.
You saw Scott Community College’s The Actor’s Nightmare, which is one of my favorite one-act comedies. I love Christopher Durang’s plays, and that one is so fast, and funny, and kind of profound in its way ... .
It is. I wish that I knew the source material better – the plays it was referencing – because I might have experienced it differently. I still enjoyed it so much, but I think it would’ve enjoyed it even more if I knew the source material.
And Scott’s Don’t Talk to the Actors we saw together, as I recall. The Tom Dudzick comedy.
That’s right. We did.
I really like his work. I wish more groups would do more of his stuff. Richmond Hill, a few years ago, did that Pazinski-family trilogy of his that was just wonderful, and he seems to have a really strong stage voice.
And it feels sincere. It feels real.
Dudzick does heightened stage dialogue, but it’s still ... . You can get away with all those kinds of sit-com-y lines because they sound human. His dialogue sounds the way people talk.
Have you liked the student actors at Scott these days?
I have. This will have been the third year that I’ve seen stuff there, and ... . I don’t know how to say it without it maybe being offensive, but this was the first year I found myself thinking, “Wow, some of these kids have a real future in theatre.” You know, maybe not Broadway or whatnot, but they have talent and they should keep going with this.
So if these students are local, I hope to see them in local theatres in the future. Because they’re quite good.
And speaking of students, we mentioned Spring Awakening earlier, which we saw at the Center for Living. That was like the first really “grown-up fare” thing they’ve tried over there, and I thought it was incredibly sincere and touching.
Yes, I thought the strength of the show was that the actors were so earnest about it. You know, it wasn’t perfect, and I think that – while some of them might be upset by my saying this – not all of them maybe had the life experience, I think, to fully understand the scope of their characters and what they were going through. But they were so earnest about it, and you could tell they were passionate about wanting to do it, and they just sold it. I thought that show was fantastic. I would’ve gone back again.
I would’ve, too. I saw it on its closing weekend and absolutely would’ve gone again. I thought the two lead guys [Garrin Jost and Aaron Lord], in particular, were just stellar. Great talent, great presence ... .
Yes. And as much as I love that soundtrack, because I hadn’t seen it before, I didn’t know some of the songs in context. Like the song before that kid kills himself – I didn’t know that was what he was going to do! So even though I know that soundtrack word-for-word, there were surprises in it. That was nice.
Spring Awakening was the first thing you got to see at the Center for Living, and you also got to see the first shows at the QC Workshop space, where we did Red, and where the Prenzie Players did The Rover. Of course, you saw the Prenzies at several different venues this year. What did you think of their using the Stern Center space, in the District, for Titus [Andronicus]?
I liked it a lot. There’s too much echo in that space, and I thought it actually added to the grandness of that production. There was just enough echo.
And so much wing space! When they rolled out that huge freaking rolling platform? It was like, “How far back does that wing space go?!”
Yes! And then they rolled it off the other side of the stage!
Right! [Laughs.] I was bummed that they didn’t do another show there, actually. I really thought that space was awesome, at least for Titus.
Well, I was a little surprised when I came in and the seating was so limited. It’s this huge space, and they condensed the audience down to only a few dozen seats; it seemed like they were going to be throwing away money. And then, seeing it, I was like, “Okay, no, this is perfect.” Because it’s a show that probably shouldn’t be intimate, but that intimacy gave it more of an impact, I think. Like, “I’m a little too close to this, and I’m uncomfortable, and I should be.”
It had some really off-putting effects.
It did. I didn’t think handing out little meat pies to the audience worked, but ... .
I saw the show with a friend who was really upset about that. He’s a vegetarian – as I’m sure were several people who bit down into a big chunk of meat without being told what it was. He told me later, “I thought it was going to be chocolate.” And I love the Prenzies, as you know, but I thought that was pretty uncool. I mean, I like the idea behind giving us meat pies; as a Titus cannibalism gag, it’s gross and funny. But I’m surprised that didn’t come up in a rehearsal – that idea of “What do we do if somebody’s a vegetarian and gets really pissed off?” But hey, they take risks, right?
And that would definitely be considered a risk.
Yes, I did.
Did that work okay for the material?
It did. The space was just a room with chairs. But that worked. It’s kind of a sloppy show, and so the minimalism worked for it. That show’s kind of supposed to be “We’re just goofballs up here,” like they’re in a frat house or something, and that’s what it felt like.
It was like a frat-house show!
But in a church. [Laughs.]
And what a find Nate Curlott is. He was just spectacular in that show. Spectacular. More than held his own with Adam [Lewis] and Andy Koski and Jake Walker. That kid just showed up and was like, “I’m in charge now.”
Aren’t they staging it again?
They are, on December 29. I hope more people get to see it. I was weeping, I was laughing so hard.
I think that show’s a really good choice for them, with the way they handle Shakespeare.
The Rover was another one I was in, so we’ll breeze past it, but I gotta say I’m so glad you liked Jeremy Mahr as much as you did. That performance, I thought, was magnificent.
I love all those guys in The Rover, and I adore Jeremy in everything, but wow, what a smart, fully fleshed-out character that was. It’s been way too long since he’s had a lead role on stage. Doubt in 2009, maybe?
I like when there’s a performance like that – where I catch myself watching actors when they’re not in the spotlight. The metaphorical spotlight. Watching them in the background and seeing that they’re still the character.
And that brings us to Genesius Guild – a group I totally screwed up with this summer, because I was convinced they were doing one-weekend runs of the Bacchae plays, and didn’t realize until way too late that they were running the first two parts again on a third weekend.
We totally could've reviewed them. And should have. So that’s my major mea culpa for 2012. That was totally my fault, and I still feel awful about it. But you liked the shows you did see this summer, and I think you even mentioned that Measure for Measure was the funniest Shakespeare you’d ever seen anywhere.
Yes! I quite enjoyed that one.
And the end-of-summer comedy?
Oh, The Frogs was just great. You know, that was the first Genesius comedy where I thought the story itself was cohesive and interesting aside from all the humor. Sometimes there’s like this loose little plot that you can really do away with; it’s just kind of a glue for all these fun things that Don Wooten puts into the show for fun. But with that one, I was like, “I’m really interested in the story as much as I am the comedy!”
Those are words of high praise.
Yes! Win-win! But that show was just so much fun. I loved it.
So what are you most looking forward to in area theatre in 2013?
Well, [Playcrafters'] Proof ... .
Oh, I really like that one. My boss Jeff calls that play “unf---upable,” which I love.
Because it’s such a strong script that it seems impossible to screw up.
But you can’t print that, can you?
Sure. It’s the Reader.
Oh, right. [Laughs.]
I’m excited to see Peter Pan at Music Guild ... .
... and I’m really curious about Hair at the District.
Yes! And I really want to know if they’re doing the full-nude scene. Not that I really want to see naked people on stage, but I just think if any local theatre is going to do it, it’s going to be the District Theatre.
Right. Because the Prenzies aren’t doing Hair anytime soon.
No. You’re right. They’d keep the nude scene, too.
New Ground is doing those new works. That’s exciting.
Yeah, that is cool. I’m not sure yet if that’s going to be one full-length play or another evening of short ones.
I would hope Chris Jansen continues with those shorts. You know, give local playwrights a chance to practice their craft. Because that’s great.
For sure. I’m looking forward to seeing Ragtime at the District. Do you like that show?
I love that show. That’s another one where I’m like, “I love that show, so don’t screw it up.” The District is also doing Young Frankenstein. That’s interesting. I’m really curious about that one.
I’m looking forward to the District’s reasons to be pretty. Such a great Neil LaBute script. Augie’s doing this really fun, edgy Eric Bogosian play – SubUrbia. And St. Ambrose is doing Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, which I’m really psyched for. Such beautiful, gorgeous imagery in that one. That could be visually stunning, I think.
And who’s doing 9 to 5 next year?
Have you heard the soundtrack?
Only a few songs.
I haven’t heard anything from that one – except the title song, of course. And it seems like Music Guild got the rights to that one fast. Wasn’t that just on Broadway?
Yeah. Really recently.
Timber Lake is doing Chorus Line, which, amazingly, I’ve never seen on stage.
I haven’t either. And I see Timber Lake has a “musical to be announced.” Do you know what it is?
No, but I’m thinking it can only be one of two shows: Spamalot or Book of Mormon. It’s advertised on Timber Lake’s Web site as “a spectacularly funny song-and-dance show” that’s also a recent Tony winner for Best Musical. And I went over the options, and those two are the only ones that really qualify.
It seems a little early for Book of Mormon. They wouldn’t release that yet, right?
I can’t picture they would, since they’re just starting the tours now. My guess is Spamalot, but they can’t announce it ’til March, so we’ll see. At the Showboat, I really like Almost, Maine, which I’ve already seen it a couple times. Death of a Salesman is happening at Richmond Hill, but oh God, if that show isn’t cast beautifully, that could be a long night. Hopefully, with that one, we’ll get to see John VanDeWoestyne in another lead role.
That would be great. What’s the Prenzie show Bear Girl?
That’s an original work by J.C. Luxton.
It’s a historical story about a Native American tribe. I was at a reading for it earlier in the year, and it’s epic and huge and has all these fascinating characters ... .
Yeah, that could be kick-ass. So we’ve got that new play, and the QC Workshop has a locally-written show this summer – A Green River, by Aaron Randolph, who also had his play The Plagiarists staged at Ambrose this year. And then New Ground has its original work next spring ... . It’s cool to see so much new material getting produced.
Yeah. It really is.
And I have to admit I’m kind of excited to see Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type at Circa. ’Cause that title rocks. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Tell me that’s a kids’ show.
So anything else you want to mention before we wrap this up for another year?
I don’t know if it’s worth mentioning, but I do think that my perception of theatre has changed with my job change. When I was working at News Channel 8, my mind was active all day, and it kept going when I went into the theatre – I was always thinking and writing. And now that I’m a tele-data apprentice ... .
And what is that exactly?
I pull cable and work with telephone security systems and stuff like that. No electrical work. I couldn’t put in a light switch for you, but I can wire your house for the Internet.
But I’m physically exhausted. Now I go home and I’ll be falling asleep on the couch at nine or 9:30. I’m just so tired. And so now two things have happened with theatre: One is that, now, I just want to be entertained. I’m like, “I’m so tired, I just want to go and – .”
“I don’t want to think.”
I don’t want to think. And so it’s harder to engage these days, and I sometimes find myself, the next morning, starting to write my review, and thinking, “I should’ve paid more attention to the details.” And the second thing that’s happening: I fall asleep. Actually, I have not fallen asleep, but I have to fight it. It hits about 9:30, and I’m like, oh my gosh ... . Even if I’m really liking the production, I’m so tired, and that’s really frustrating for me. So that’s bad.
Well, hopefully things will improve once you get more used to the job.
At least I haven’t fallen asleep on anybody. Yet. But I’ve come close. So if you’re in a show and you see me nod off, know that you’re not boring, necessarily. I’m just tired from carrying ladders all day.
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