Kevin DeDecker, Dan Faust, and Tom Morrow in When the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's current production of Arsenic & Old Lace is really rolling, this venerated black comedy (well, dark-gray comedy) is absolutely delightful. The problem, though - or rather, the problem with last week's opening-night performance - is that Richmond Hill's production doesn't so much roll as lurch; despite their frequently endearing characterizations, the actors on Thursday evening had so much trouble getting their words out that the show never quite found a satisfying rhythm. The experience was like taking a vacation road trip in a vehicle that keeps threatening to stall: You've made it to your destination, and you've had a good time along the way, but you're still a little grateful when it's over.

Jessica Stratton and Andrew Harvey in St. Ambrose University's Fortinbras was the most thoroughly entertaining theatrical production I've yet seen in 2007. And while, if you missed the show during its one-weekend, three-performance run, I have no interest in rubbing your noses in that fact, I feel the need to write about the experience because I hope that soon (a) you see Fortinbras and (b) you see this production's actors.

Kyle Roggenbuck and Brian Bengtson in With Tim Robbins' capital-punishment drama Dead Man Walking, Augustana College's theatre department has crafted a moving and impressive play, and I can't fully express how difficult that task must have been, because it really isn't a play; it's a screenplay. Scene for scene, sometimes even word for word, this 2002 piece replicates Robbins' 1995 movie to the letter, and in doing so, points out the deep chasm that exists between theatre and film. As a stage piece, Dead Man Walking shouldn't work, but director Jeff Coussens and his fiercely committed cast do everything in their power to keep you from noticing, and more often than not, succeed beautifully.

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."

(Warning: Specific details of - and potential surprises in - Oleanna may slip through. Proceed with caution.)

 

Jamie Em Jonson and Chris Browne in It's always heartening to see theatre directors making strong choices, and this is true even when those choices appear to be spectacularly misguided. Such is the case with My Verona Productions' presentation of David Mamet's Oleanna. I didn't necessarily agree with several of Tristan Layne Tapscott's directorial decisions, but I happily recognize that at least decisions were made; in its current incarnation, this 1992 play that has been acclaimed (and, in some circles, reviled) for its refusal to choose sides most definitely does choose a side. Yet what does that decision do for the work as a whole?

Mishi Schueller and Kimberly Willes in For West Side Story to really work, the actors portraying Tony and Maria have to be marvelous, and in Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's new presentation of this beloved musical updating of Romeo & Juliet, Mishi Schueller and Kimberly Willes are even better in these roles than you'd hope they'd be. The duo is so touching, so emotionally expansive, that director/choreographer Ann Nieman's production is an absolute dream whenever they're on stage, so allow me to begin by discussing Schueller's and Willes' contributions, which should underscore how great this West Side Story is, and perhaps help explain why it should've been greater still.

Tom Dugan as Robert E. Lee When actor/playwright Tom Dugan premiered his one-man show Robert E. Lee: Shades of Gray in Richmond, Virginia, in 2004, the packed audience at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts gave the production a standing ovation. Crowds were similarly enthusiastic after subsequent performances in Tennessee, West Virginia, and Georgia, and when Dugan performed Shades of Gray in Lexington mere days before his Quad Cities arrival, the show was sold-out long in advance of its January 11 opening.

Southern audiences, it seems, have been most appreciative of Dugan's historical endeavor. But what of Northern audiences?

"I'll let you know after I get through Davenport," says Dugan during a recent phone interview. "You guys - you count as the north, don'tcha?"

We certainly do.

Dugan laughs. "I'm finally invading the north!"

Alexa Florence and Chris Zayner in You can tell that the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's production of Strangers on a Train is doing its job, and doing it quite well, because - at Friday's opening-night performance, at any rate - the show appears to be making a large segment of its audience really uncomfortable.

612-reader-cover2 My mother sends out an annual holiday letter, which serves as a de facto State of the Union for our family - a recap of what that she and Dad did during the year, a checklist of casinos they visited (which pretty much covers the same ground), and, of course, an update on the lives of their children.

In the past, recipients of Mom's missives would get the skinny on my brother and his wife, my sister, her husband, and their pets, and my adventures would be detailed with a succinct "And Mike went to the movies." (I was thrilled last year when she provided the addendum " ... and the theatre.")

"Cabaret" In the 11-week period between June 1 and August 12, I saw 28 area productions. And how did you spend your summer vacation?

Considering the overall great time I had last summer, though, I was hardly dreading this relentless schedule. I'd spent 10 whole months eagerly anticipating my return to the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre (CAST), Mt. Carroll's Timber Lake Playhouse, and - for Genesius Guild productions - Rock Island's Lincoln Park; the summer-theatre triad would be responsible for 17 of those 28 offerings. (Summer 2006 would also provide my introduction to Eldridge's Countryside Community Players, whose Cinderella I missed last year.)

Pages