Crooked Path Theatre to bring its off-beat productions to Prairie Lights, The James this fall

Iowa City Book Festival and Crooked Path Theatre Present: 'Beowulf'

James Theater, Iowa City -- Friday, Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 1 at 2 p.m., $20

Chris Okiishi (center) at a rehearsal of Crooked Path Theatre’s Christmas cabaret. — Sid Peterson/Little Village

It can be hard to keep up with the absolute explosion of theater happening in the Corridor. Talent and passion keep sprouting in this fertile Iowan soil, and “so much theater” is an incredibly delightful (and coveted) problem for any town to have.

Not new, but positively blossoming this fall is one company you may or may not be familiar with: Crooked Path Theatre. What started as a side/seed project of long-time local theater artists Patrick Du Laney and Chris Okiishi, now brings its first full season of shows to Iowa City, from straight plays to musical cabarets.

Crooked Path kicked off that season in August. At its home base of the James Theater, Crooked Path produced a one-woman musical written and starring a performer and costume designer with deep ties to Iowa City, Jill Van Brussel. This first show, Why Do I Own a Thong? (And Other Existential Questions), provided a peak into what Crooked Path is all about and a promise of what is to come: In turns serious and funny, personal and communal, this big-hearted production brought a great talent back home, while including more than a dozen local performers who burst into the final song with a flourish of sass and joy.

It seems that Crooked Path is looking to expand the borders of the corridor’s theater scene until its magic spills into all the margins and dark alleys that persistently lurk around the usual spotlights.

Champions of the small musical, scrappy play and gutsy venue, Okiishi and Du Laney love to upend the expected theater experience.

“There are more and more reasons to stay home now,” Du Laney said. “Between the pandemic and the ubiquity of what’s available on TV, you need to give an audience something they can’t get from Netflix, something immersive, unexpected and, we hope, thrilling.”

Their first endeavor together in 2015, when Crooked Path was still just a twinkle in its fathers’ eyes, was a production of the Sondheim musical Company staged at the Northridge Pavilion in Coralville. The audience was included as partygoers, attending the lead character’s birthday party. Okiishi remembers it as “a magical, all-star production.”

Their next full production was in 2017; Sense and Sensibility was performed in Jan Finlayson’s Iowa City design store, Luxe Interiors. The next year, they produced Marjorie Prime, a play about loss and technology-assisted grief, staged at the Iowa City Recycling Center. These brilliant pairings of location with production became Crooked Path’s calling card.

That leads to their season’s first October offering. Ghost-Writer, by Michael Hollinger, centers on a prolific author in the 1930s. Audiences will find this riveting piece of theater at the same location they might, on another night, attend a (not fictional) author reading their more current work: Prairie Lights Bookstore’s second floor. Note that you will only have two chances to be in the audience of Ghost-Writer — Oct. 22 and 23.

Sasha LaPointe holds a reading and Q/A session for her new book, “Red Paint,” at Prairie Lights, on Thursday, April 7, 2022. The same space will host Crooked Path’s ‘Ghost-Writer’ in October 2022. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

The very next weekend is Crooked Path’s Creepy Campfire Cabaret at Janet Schlapkohl’s farm. And rest assured that Crooked Path’s annual holiday cabaret will be rocking mid-December at the James Theater, with more fun and thoughtful projects coming in 2023 (including a February production of Well, by Lisa Kron).

But first, don’t miss this month’s “fierce retelling” of a millennium-old epic poem and experience a thoroughly performative aspect of the annual Iowa City Book Festival. In collaboration with Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature, Crooked Path will bring a new Beowulf, adapted by Charlie Bethel and starring Minneapolis actor John Heimbuch, to the James Theater stage Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m.

When asked what it’s like to work together as a couple, Okiishi replied, “We have a tremendous respect for the other person and their abilities, and we respect each other enough to be able to say when we know we can do better. We constantly strive to hold each other to a loving but rigorous standard.”

I can’t help but think this response translates well to Crooked Path’s relationship with Iowa City theater. Du Laney and Okiishi’s deep love and respect for this community shows in how and why they continue to do theater here, and specifically why they are committing to produce theater in earnest here. And the Corridor is all the richer for their love of community and magic making.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 310.

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