"Much Ado About Nothing" In the realm of educational theatre, the audience's enjoyment should always be secondary to what the students take from their theatrical experiences. So I certainly hope that 2006's productions were meaningful for the students in Augustana College's, St. Ambrose University's, and Black Hawk College's theatre programs, because this particular audience member had a great time at their shows.

"Black Comedy" Augustana's February presentation of The Miser set the tone for the school's whole output this year - four shows, no disappointments. But as much as I enjoyed the 2005-6 "Masks of Comedy" season, which included the funny Black Comedy and the really funny The Real Inspector Hound, I'm sort of relieved that it's over. I love laughing as much as anyone, but considering the superior talents of Augustana's student actors - and I'm delighted to see that Christine Barnes, Brian Bengtson, and Charlie Zamastil haven't graduated yet - I've been eager to see them do more than make me laugh.

"Nickel & Dimed" Welcome to the 2006-7 season - themed "Issues of Our Times" - which opened with what seems to me the perfect sort of educational-production-slash-actor's-showcase: Nickel & Dimed, a serious, touching, and funny work that caters to the Augustana actors' gifts for character performance, much like 2005's The Laramie Project (still the best show I've seen at the school in the past decade). As a proud alumnus of the theatre department, I'm always thrilled to return for a new Augustana experience, and I can't wait for February's take on Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking and David Hare's Stuff Happens in April, which - believe it or not - will give Augie's actors the chance to play George Bush, Tony Blair, Condoleeza Rice, and Sadaam Hussein. I'm in line for tickets already.

"The Threepenny Opera" Across the river from Rock Island, Davenport's St. Ambrose has a much larger theatre to house its productions (the spacious Galvin Fine Arts Center versus Augustana's cozy Potter Hall), and its 2006 shows were suitably, lavishly scaled. Much Ado About Nothing, The Threepenny Opera, and Narnia all boasted superior production design, and even Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind had a grandeur that matched the characters' operatic emotions. The sheer bravado of these shows - That Much Ado set! Those Narnia costumes! - was inspiring, and the student crews (who, I'm ashamed to say, I consistently neglect to praise) that worked on their design deserve high praise.

"A Lie of the Mind" Now if only the actors' performances were similarly majestic. With the exception of the marvelous Lie of the Mind, though, it seems that 2006's productions have overshadowed those performing them. That's a shame, considering that St. Ambrose appears to be filled with talents; when they're really rolling, Jack Kloppenborg, Claire Richards, and Sarah Catherine Ulloa are about as good as student actors get. This year, though, not all of the performers appeared confident about filling the Galvin space with passion and personality. (They'll have two more main-stage opportunities to do so this season, in February's Fortinbras and April's Crème de Coco.)

But it'll happen. That's what educational theatre is all about, of course - learning.

Which brings me to Laundry & Bourbon and Lone Star, which Black Hawk staged in November. To be quite frank, I was hesitant about seeing these one-act plays. I'd been to a couple of Black Hawk shows in the past, and while it was obvious that the student actors were having fun, it almost looked like they were having too much fun. The lines that made the audience laugh made several of the actors laugh, too - or at least noticeably grin - and the students didn't appear terribly interested in making the playwrights' intentions clear. I didn't question the shows' entertainment value; I questioned their educational value.

I am officially eating crow. Laundry & Bourbon was a sincere and completely enjoyable dialogue that provided meaty roles for a trio of really promising actresses, and the well-paced, satisfyingly rough-edged, and fall-down-funny Lone Star was even better. Lone Star's Damian Cassini, Jeremy Kelly, and Nicholas Waldbusser are more than promising; they're damned good. (Despite my disappointment with Circa '21's production, I'm truly looking forward to Black Hawk's presentation of The Ugly Duckling in April.)

I can't, of course, ascertain whether the students involved with these one-acts learned about confidence and intent and timing from their theatre department, but they certainly displayed it, so kudos to Black Hawk for a nearly revelatory evening of theatre. And while I'm certain that Laundry & Bourbon and Lone Star meant even more to the students than to me, if they enjoyed their experience even half as much as I did, that's tuition money well spent.

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