Oh, 2020 started so well, didn't it?
By the first week of March, I had already seen six area-theatre productions, all of which I got to enjoy without the added obligation of having to review them. There was the Black Box Theatre's Holocaust drama I Never Saw Another Butterfly, with its traditionally, sublimely heartfelt and lyrical performance by Laila Haley, and St. Ambrose University's The Shape of Things, an enjoyably nasty Neil LaBute comedy directed by collegiate friend Ellie Larson and starring collegiate friends Abbie Carpenter and Tyler Hughes that was almost completely stolen by an SAU student I'd never seen on-stage before. (See my “Featured Actress” mention in the accompanying “Reader Tonys” article.) Across the river, Augustana College did dandy work, too, presenting an impassioned update on its annual fundraiser The Vagina Monologues featuring loads of students and my crazy-gifted faculty pal Shelley Cooper, as well as the family comedy Junie B. Is Not a Crook, a legit-hilarious outing that provided at least one belly laugh per minute over its too-short 60 minutes.
Continuing the venue's practice of hosting debut productions, some of them by local playwrights, the Playcrafters Barn Theatre gave us Quad Cities author Alexander Richardson's Their Town, a modernized companion piece to Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Even in world-premiere form, the show boasted beautiful, aching fights between Kassidy Holdridge's and Ethan D. Mason's young lovers, and as always, Brant Peitersen was as humane and empathetic a stage presence as anyone could want. And then there was the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's Kinky Boots, which I saw mere days before the end of its run, and which was one of the most fabulously entertaining Circa '21 musicals I'd seen in years – maybe especially in retrospect, because it turned out that my dad had no idea that all those beautiful chorus girls he was ogling were, in fact, played by men. (Yeah, Dad's 80 and has dementia. But I'm betting that comparatively younger, healthier patrons were also fooled by the beautifully performed and costumed ruse.)
Meanwhile, regarding my own personal theatrical pursuits, 2020 was starting to look like a banner year. I had already been cast in the Mississippi Bend Players' summer-seasson opener Broadway Bound, which was to complete Neil Simon's Jerome-family trilogy that the company began staging in 2017. I had been cast in, and had already started rehearsing, a QC Theatre Workshop production of Prelude to a Kiss that was set to open in late April. A friend and I had just received a handshake deal for a two-man Workshop show that was scheduled to open late-summer. Plus, there were so very many upcoming area productions to look forward to! Quad City Music Guild's The Secret Garden and the Prenzie Players' Two Noble Kinsmen and the Spotlight Theatre's Tarzan … !
And then, as you know, in the second week of March, everything went to hell.
If you're a fan of area theatre, you certainly don't need me to remind you of what was lost in 2020: planned-for stage presentations; entire seasons of shows by reliable theatre companies; the Davenport venue that housed the QC Theatre Workshop and Prenzie Players; St. Ambrose's freaking theatre major. Heartbreaking losses, all of them … and still not as painful as losing such beloved theatre veterans as Richmond Hill Barn Theatre stalwart John VanDeWoestyne, venerable Quad City Music Guild director Bob Williams, and the frequent, forever-endearing Circa '21 performer Carrie SaLoutos. So very much happened in 2020 that was simply unfair. Yet here we are at the end of this awful awful year, looking for reasons to celebrate.
Yet I desperately want to believe that even the recently departed would want us to celebrate, because even in a seemingly hopeless year, there were reasons for hope.
A few local venues, for a while, did return starting in July, and until they shuttered again in November, we got four Black Box Theatre productions and three collective Circa '21 and Circa Speakeasy shows – God bless that madcap Rocky Horror brigade! Thanks to the company's fortuitous partnership with Davenport's Outing Club, dance fans enjoyed a quartet of Ballet Quad Cities presentations. Area students, meanwhile, were able to participate in a radio drama by St. Ambrose and streaming plays by Augustana and Scott Community College that we all were able to hear and/or see.
Streaming theatre, in general, became a capitalized Thing, and I loved watching, among other offerings, the Disney+ Hamilton, Prime Video's What the Constitution Mans to Me, the astoundingly fine Andrew Scott in A Sea Wall, and the ridiculously exciting, 50-minute online epic The Great Work Begins: Scenes from “Angels in America,” which gave playwright Tony Kushner's miraculous, normally seven-hour opus 2020 relevance and, among its many insane casting coups, showcased Glenn Close as a dying Roy Cohn. (I was also way-late to this particular party, but if you have $7.99 to spare, please check out Laurie Metcalf and David Suchet in London's 2013 West End production of Long Day's Journey Into Night. Easily the best three hours I've spent in a virtual theatre all year.)
As for my own personal involvement with the stage post-early-March, I did what so many area-theatre peeps did: I participated in Zoom readings. I did one for a playwright friend whom I hadn't been in contact with since our senior year at Augustana in 1990, which was awesome. I did one for a Sarah Ruhl play that had Sarah's mother Kathy Keho Ruhl in the lead role, with Sarah herself occasionally weighing in on our progress. (I hope it goes without saying that this experience was also awesome.) I hosted a Zoom reading to hopefully get an independently produced production of Waiting for Godot off the ground – a reading that, I think everyone involved will admit, wasn't awesome, but which, I think, eventually led to good things.
And I never, never, lost touch with the fact that theatre is the art form I personally cherish above all others.
Anyone who knows Elizabethan theatre, or who has seen Shakespeare in Love, knows that this isn't the first time theatre has fought to endure in the time of a plague. So with that in mind, we at the River Cities' Reader are happy to offer thoughts on the theatrical arts by the committed and, this year, too-rarely heard voices of our reviewing team of Rochelle Arnold, Pamela Briggs, and Madeline Dudziak – as well as yours truly – both personally and as part of our annual desire to dole out “Reader Tonys,” challenges notwithstanding. Despite the sadly abbreviated season, this is a local art form that's still, and totally, worth celebrating.
- Mike Schulz
Arts Fine and More-Than-Fine
By Rochelle Arnold
The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the category of fine arts that I love the most – live theatre – and as I reminisce about area stage productions, I'm reminded that laughter does a body good. Rifling through my purse to find a Kleenex to dry my watering eyes. I remember laughing so hard I was crying at the Mississippi Bend Players' third-season opener, Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues. But I also recall being moved to tears because I was so inspired by the beautiful gospel music of Marie & Rosetta at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre.
Likewise, I will never forget the first time I saw a show at the Spotlight Theatre, nestled inside the old Scottish Rite Cathedral in downtown Moline. The company’s performance of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was so good I felt like I was watching an off-Broadway production. Adam Sanders was cast in the leading role of Quasimodo, the deformed hunchback cursed to forever be a cathedral bell ringer, and at times, I completely forgot he was acting, because his transformation into his desperate character was pure genius.
For me, the fine arts allow my imagination to run wild and evoke strong emotions that make me feel alive, especially when there are a lot of visuals; I love the way artists can come together and produce beautiful set designs that are creative and impactful. For example, in the Timber Lake Playhouse's The Little Mermaid, David Goldstein's scenic design was magnificent, incorporating all kinds of recyclable plastic jugs and various clear containers to simulate sparkling bubbles in the water. Meanwhile, that show's Mitchell Snow was extremely innovative in his props design, employing swimming-pool noodles that were painted green to replicate seaweed.
The thing about live theatre is that it's collaborative, and can bring communities together. Theatre incorporates music, art, costume design, props, directing, marketing, writing, and every aspect of production to create genuine pieces of art. I especially enjoy it when characters mingle within the audience, as they did in Timber Lake’s Forever Plaid. The introduction was fabulous as the four main characters entered from the back of the audience, singing through the dimly lit center aisle, holding candles as they made their way to the stage.
On a more serious note, it was chilling to witness the horrible consequences of murder and child abuse in The Who's Tommy at the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre. This rock opera was in-your-face, intense, and powerful, with cranked-up volume on the phenomenal music of one of the most influential groups of the 20th century. And somehow, I had listened to The Who's popular songs such as “See Me, Feel Me,” “Pinball Wizard,” and “I’m Free” all of my life without a clue of what the story was behind them.
The fine arts have at times kept me sane and provided a way to channel my mind and focus on things other than my immediate problems or challenges in life. For instance, as a former performing server at the theatre myself, the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's The Best of the Bootleggers brought back so many awesome memories of how exciting it was to be up on that stage, engaging with the audience with my adrenaline pumping. The fine arts are so important to me, and I hope to you as well, and I am optimistically believing in the near-future when we can all get back to the theatre.
By Pamela Briggs
My little grade school didn't have a theatre program. We barely had a music class. So when our music teacher announced that we were going to do a musical, I was thrilled – more so when I earned a solo in it.
It was a true-meaning-of-Christmas vehicle designed to convey a theological discussion, one dotted with songs. (Some of which I still remember.) The material was trite, but it was a show, and I was crushed when our teacher canceled it, saying, “The students aren't interested enough to work on it.” I replied, “I'm interested!” But what I wanted didn't matter.
We did the musical the following year. I was dismayed when I didn't win my solo again. It wasn't fair. But I soldiered on in the chorus, doing my best, and there was joy in performing the show, even though it wasn't what I'd envisioned.
Another time, we did a small-scale, bare-bones adaptation of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel & Gretel. I was happy to be cast as the witch, the meatiest character, by far. (Fittingly, she ended up in the oven).
So I know the happiness in getting a great role, the pain of not getting a part you wanted, and the helplessness you feel when a show is canceled. This year, so many shows were canceled, and we all feel helpless.
In 2020, living is different. Dying is possible. We're afraid. We need respite from our omnipresent, draining worries. We need escapism and catharsis. But this year, for the most part, we couldn't get that from live theatre.
As disease spread, businesses closed, livelihoods evaporated, staples got scarce, and theatre began to collapse. Reluctantly, but with clear-eyed assessment of our new reality, theatre owners and boards of directors shut off the lights. Shows that I was looking forward to seeing and reviewing were called off – some with friends involved, others with directors and performers I admire. I know my personal disappointment is small compared to the emotional and financial losses of other theatre folk. Some of those lights might never come back on.
Many have embraced online streaming of performances, but not all audiences have sufficient equipment or Internet connections to partake, including yours truly. A few theatres reopened with reduced capacities, distancing, and hygiene measures – but now they've gone dark again.
The last show I saw pre-plague was Playcrafters' Their Town in March, when Americans were starting to worry about the pandemic. When I'm reviewing, I generally don't talk with casts afterward. But I wanted to talk to some people, so I went through the lobby's meet-and-greet line and exchanged some cheery words and a few hugs. Afterward, I went out for coffee and a good talk with a theatre pal. I had no way of knowing, but our hug at evening's end would be my last – for nine months and counting.
Will I ever get another hug? Will we rehearse, perform, relish live theatre again? Will life approach the carefree quality of before? All we can do is acknowledge our grief, cope creatively, and soldier on, not knowing. It may not be soon, but I'm confident that someday, in some way, we will take joy in local theatre again.
By Madeline Dudziak
As I was unpacking my recent online grocery order, I found myself a little disgruntled with a weird substitution that was made. It struck me that in the world of 2020, we have been remarkably pulled out of our comfort zones, and are forced into substitutions we would never choose for ourselves in many facets of our daily lives – up to and including art.
I am so grateful that theatre artists have found ways to safely create and share their art via virtual productions and, in a pinch, it’ll do. However, it’s nothing compared to walking into a theatre and sitting with a bunch of strangers for a few hours to see a show. There’s a certain thrill for everyone in the space as everyone waits together to experience the story unfolding. That’s the true magic of theatre… you never really know what’s going to happen.
Back in August, I attended the lovely The 39 Steps: A Live Radio Play at the Black Box Theatre. What made the evening a completely unique experience was the other patrons. There weren’t many of us, that’s true, but we bonded. Perhaps it’s because we were starved for conversation with someone new or maybe it was just sheer luck and some exceptionally kind ladies, but there was instant camaraderie. From our socially distanced seats, we chatted happily until the lights went down. Exchanging glances and laughs together throughout the performance reminded me of why I love theatre so much: because it’s a shared experience that can never truly be replicated.
Watching an audience’s reactions is one of my favorite parts of the theatre. Especially when things seemingly go wrong or a cricket happens to hop across the stage. I love sitting near people who aren’t familiar with a show since these people offer up the best intermission and post-show commentary. I get a kick out of moms who sneak pictures of their kids on stage. (Please don’t actually do that, though, because it’s against the rules – but it still makes me smile just a bit.)
In recent years, I have seen some truly remarkable audience moments. I’ve seen patrons fall asleep, go through copious amounts of tissues as they sobbed their way through productions, and laugh so hard they’ve given themselves hiccups. I’ve been fortunate enough to see shows in sold-out crowds and have even attended some rehearsals in which I was the only person experiencing the show for the first time. It is an audience that makes a production come to life, and they’re the reason that productions are mounted in the first place. Like a tree in the forest – does the show go on if no one is there to see it?
At the end of this pandemic, there will be Quad Cities theatre on the other side, so long as there’s an audience willing to show up. No matter what energy you bring along, it’ll create an artistic experience for which there is no equivalent substitution. Live theatre, folks. There’s nothing like it.
For more on the local stage scene, visit "Two-Oh-Two-Oh Twos: The Fifth-Annual (Albeit Abbreviated) Reader Tony Awards."