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
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?
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.
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 ... !
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.