Debo Balogun and Keenan Odenkirk in Othello

As an Augustana alum of so many years, I was excited to see the opening of the new Brunner Theatre Center on the Augie campus, and especially excited to see its current Othello under the direction of Jeff Coussens. The new theatre facility did not disappoint, and scenic and lighting designers Andy Gutshall and Adam Pfluger, respectively, created a memorable space for the production – minimally designed, yet replete with authentic Arabic graffiti and evocatively low, blue lighting.

Megan Hammerer and Samuel Langellier in Getting Out, photo courtesy of the Augustana Photo BureauAugustana College’s Getting Out, directed by Jeff Coussens, is the story of one woman’s difficulties in reconstructing her life after being released from prison, and author Marsha Norman’s 1978 play is a brilliant depiction of life's realities for a woman who has been caught in a cycle of violence, beginning with abuse as a child. Although she served her time in prison and has been released, she now has the real “getting out” to do – getting out of her own psychological hell.

Luke Currie, Leslie Kane, Jaylen Marks, Macy Hernandez and Elyssa Lemay (top row), and Corbin Delgado and Bill Cahill (bottom row) in The Arsonists; photo by Long NguyenDirector Jeffrey Coussens makes some beautiful choices regarding the positioning of his Greek chorus of public-safety officers in Augustana College's The Arsonists. At different points in the play, he places this group of seven - with the character of the Policeman leading six firefighters - huddled on the stairs to the set's attic, flanking both sides of the stage with the same legs crossed, and sitting along the front of the stage, watching the action. And their orderly placement, along with the chorus members' bright yellow uniforms, are a striking contrast to the escalating destruction that's taking place on stage.

Amanda Wales, Michael King, and Andy Curtiss in Measure for MeasureThree hours goes by quite quickly during Genesius Guild's well-paced, oftentimes hilarious production of William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. While the piece is considered a "problem play," as the script defies the expectations of a traditional comedy, director Jeff Coussens highlights the work's ample amounts of humor, particularly in the production's first half. And with Coussens and his cast punching up every punchline through inflection and a sort of "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" attitude, I ended up laughing harder at Saturday's presentation, I believe, than I've ever laughed while watching a Shakespeare performance.

Lilli Pickens, Samantha Kammerman, and Bill Cahill in Bat Boy: The MusicalA musical based on the Weekly World News' tabloid-famous Bat Boy screams "camp." Augustana College's production of Bat Boy: The Musical, however, is not campy enough, as a couple of the leading actors played their parts too seriously or sincerely during Friday's performance, softening the effect of this musical's craziness.

Pat Flaherty in King Lear"I think it came from going to church," says area actor Pat Flaherty of his childhood interest in theatre. "Because I'd go to church, and I'd see this guy who was holding everybody's interest through the whole service. It was very dramatic - they'd light the candles and ring the bells and everything - and for a while I thought I wanted to be a priest because of that.

"It turned out I just wanted to be on stage."

David Cabassa and Angela Rathman in The Taming of the ShrewIf, at any point, you find your mind wandering during director Jeff Coussens' Genesius Guild presentation of The Taming of the Shrew - and trust me, that won't happen often - snapping back to attention is easy: Just check out the reactions of the men watching the show from stage right. You'll have no trouble spotting them, because one of the guys is drunk off his ass, and the other's wearing a dress.

Kat Martin, Jacquelyn Schmidt, and William Cahill in Our TownPlaywright Thornton Wilder's Our Town is one of the few preachy plays that I don't mind for its sermonizing. With his blatant, nearly Buddhist statements and themes about living, really living, each and every moment of life, Wilder is unapologetic about the points he wants to drive home. And perhaps because his ideas are so universally acceptable, it's easy to accept Wilder's moralizing. It also helps that the delivery of his messages is so emotionally poignant, as was effectively displayed during Friday night's Our Town performance at Augustana College.

Supposedly a family-friendly audience favorite, The Secret Garden, currently being performed at Augustana College, is an emotional but often downright dreary musical based on the classic children's novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I know few children - or adults, for that matter - with the stamina to make it through this production, which lasted almost three hours on opening night. But duration aside, the decision by director Jeff Coussens and musical director John Pfautz to even attempt to stage Garden, with its cast of 19 in the relatively-intimate Potter Hall, was an audacious one that succeeded on both vocal and visual levels.

Melissa McBain

(The following is the sidebar to the feature story "Love Letters: Melissa McBain Pays Tribute to Her Mother in New Ground Theatre's Going Back Naked.")

In addition to playwriting and performing, Melissa McBain also teaches in Augustana College's theatre department, and currently serves as coordinator and producer for the Quad City Playwrights' Festival, an annual evening of short plays by local writers, directed and acted by Augustana students. (This year's festival will take place at Augustana's Wallenberg Hall on Sunday, May 10.)