Katie McCarthy and Ben Webb in The Fantasticks About a half hour into Augustana College's opening-night presentation of the deservedly beloved musical romance The Fantasticks, Brian Bengtson made his first appearance as the aging ham Henry, and I can't recall the last time I was so relieved to see an actor on stage.

Brian Bengtson & Kyle Roggenbuck rehearse Explaining the decision to turn Tim Robbins' Oscar-winning Dead Man Walking into a work for the stage, Sister Maureen Fenlon begins with six simple words: "A stage play can go anywhere." And she would like the show to be seen everywhere.

"If you want to have a transformation," Fenlon continues, "a social transformation, then minds need to be engaged so they [people] can be open to learning, and hearts have to be opened so that that learning can go further, and seep into your own soul. When people's minds and hearts have been opened through the arts, the quality of your exchange is more than a conversation, it's surely not [merely] a debate ... and here, it's a powerful art form dealing with a very powerful issue."

Augustana ensemble members in "Nickel and Dimed" Most people - whether they've had theatrical experience or not - understand the concept of the Actor's Nightmare. You don't know your lines, you're not in costume, you don't even know what play you're in ... yet you somehow find yourself on stage, in front of an audience, and expected to perform. Now.

Nickel & Dimed, currently playing at Augustana College's Potter Hall, opens with the Server's Nightmare. In the span of five minutes, our protagonist, the newly employed Barbara (Christine Barnes), is briefly introduced to the eatery's wait staff, gets a quick tutorial on procedure, takes breakfast orders from her first (uncooperative) table, brings out their meals, and is immediately ordered to return them - the toast is wrong, the oatmeal is cold, and could I change my side dish to prunes?

At which point Barbara turns to the audience and says, with a frozen grin indicating barely concealed rage, "This is not my real life."

How wonderful and humbling the last eight months have been.

I love attending local college and university stage productions, partly because it's such a wonderful reminder of my days as a theatre major - ah, the reassuring familiarity of Augustana College's Potter Hall! - but also because the shows' participants are generally involved with theatre because they truly want to be; with the possible exception of staff members, no one's doing it just for the paycheck. (No one should ever be doing theatre for the paycheck, but that's another issue entirely.)

Augustana College's production of Oscar Wilde's classic comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest is perfectly acceptable entertainment, rarely inspired but always watchable. Yet it has the enormous good fortune to feature one performance that shoots way past the acceptable and enters the realm of the extraordinary - David Cocks' portrayal of the delectably devious John Worthing is the sort of riotously funny and brilliantly executed stunt that makes you more than eager for his next appearance; he's so elemental to the show's success that it's nearly distracting when he's not on stage. And here's the kicker: This is freshman Cocks' first appearance on the Potter Hall stage. The mind boggles at what may be in store for audiences over the next four years.

Since 1990, I've attended more than 25 plays at Augustana College, yet I've never seen one that made better use of the Potter Hall stage than The Laramie Project.

Riverside Theatre's presentations of The Laramie Project have been sold out for the past two weekends, which in itself speaks for this powerful and brilliantly crafted play. Protests are even scheduled outside the Iowa City theatre on Saturday, April 12, in response to the play.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black IIMEN IN BLACK II

I'm not sure how much there is to say about Men in Black II, director Barry Sonnenfeld's sequel to his sci-fi/comedy smash. There's always something to look at, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones provide the occasional flash of dry wit, and it's all over blessedly fast - the movie runs some 85 minutes with end credits, and you wouldn't want it to last a minute longer.