Riverside dives deep and resurfaces with ‘Sonnets for an Old Century’

Sonnets for an Old Century

Riverside Theatre (virtual), EXTENDED! through May 2, $10-15

Noel VanDenBosch in ‘Sonnets for an Old Century.’ — courtesy Riverside Theatre

The last time we spoke, Riverside Theatre producing artistic director Adam Knight impressed upon me his desire to re-imagine the face of professional theater in Iowa. For years, Riverside has been producing intimate, small cast shows with many of the same heavy-hitters: stellar productions, to be sure, but familiar. It would be easy to doubt the number of professional-caliber actors available in a region where making ones living solely by that craft has never really been an option.

But people stay in Iowa for other reasons, of course. And both the schools and the abundance of community theaters locally have incubated a bevy of talent. Knight was correct that “What it means to be a professional artist in this community is always expanding.” And Sonnets for an Old Century is his vision made manifest. Knight has cast 23 fantastic performers in José Rivera’s tender reminiscence of a play.

Certainly, Riverside’s former Gilbert Street stage wouldn’t have been able to hold so many. For Sonnets, production designer S. Benjamin Farrar created an astounding virtual waste for the characters to inhabit. It is not an attempt at verisimilitude; it is instead a masterful use of video to recreate the tension and imperfection of stage design. It demands our willful suspension of disbelief; it reminds us that magic is made. The only time I found it distracting was when a character rollerskates off smoothly through the ostensibly rocky terrain. The design is Kintsugi, filling the cracks with gold, finding the beauty in broken things.

Which is appropriate, as that is what Rivera’s entire show is about, as well. I will confess that I had to take time before writing this to avoid making it a treatise on the play itself. It’s a poetic masterpiece, and I could go on for paragraphs about its themes and throughlines and artistry. I had been unfamiliar with it before, but it is now one of those shows that I would never miss seeing any production of.

The conceit of the show is the stories that the dead tell. In many cases, they tell the stories of how they died. In others, they offer enduring questions or snapshot stories of other deeply meaningful events or people in their lives. It’s a turn on the famed Shakespeare line, “All the world’s a stage” — for Shakespeare, our lives are our performances, our brief chance to make a mark. For Rivera, it’s the afterlife that’s a stage, and he gives his characters a chance to frame their own existences for an audience, as though they crossed over and that light at the end of the tunnel was footlights.

(L-R) John William Watkins, Mia Fryvecind Gimenez, Octavius Lanier and Karlē Meyers in ‘Sonnets for an Old Century.’ — courtesy Riverside Theatre

“Your words go out into the universe — all your words — to be, I don’t know, recycled among the living. Like rain,” says Noel VanDenBosch as Wendy, in the opening monologue.

But this review is about why you should see this production of it. And, readers, you should. It is a gift to see this humanity in the faces of your neighbors. It seems almost criminal to single out performances among such a strong group of actors working with amazing text. I imagine that, like me, your own favorites will be those telling the stories that resonate most with you: For me, that was Chris Okiishi’s enthrallingly curious Michi and Octavius Lanier studiously diving into the past as Mark.

Octavius Lanier takes notes from director Adam Knight during production of ‘Sonnets for an Old Century.’ — courtesy Riverside Theatre

I also want to note the distinct physicality and engaging expressiveness of Barrington Vaxter as Kevin (my notes on the moment literally just say “Barrington Barrington-ing”); the all-consuming, full-throated wholeness of Mia Fryvecind Gimenez as Cordelia; the exceptional honesty of Diviin Huff as Alene; the tireless focus of John William Watkins as Sam. But again, the whole cast shone, offering gracious, heartbreaking and heart-mending performances.

Tying the work together was the sound design of G Clausen. It was sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring, sometimes beautiful, sometimes distressing. There were times when I took of my headphones to determine whether there was ambient noise in the show or if my refrigerator was running loudly. The droning noises that ran through were as evocative of the space and setting as Farrar’s design, a soundscape to mimic and echo and complement the landscape.

Knight has pulled off a coup in reframing the way we all will conceive of theater in our community going forward. There is hope for the future in Sonnets for an Old Century, and there is hope for our future in Riverside’s production of it. This is the work of a company on the cusp of something new. I’ve long been one of the voices shouting that we don’t want to return to “normal” in the wake of the pandemic, that normal wasn’t cutting it, that we need to move forward into something better. This production has me convinced that is possible.

Sonnets for an Old Century is available to view through April 25. Tickets are $10 student, $15 adult. Streaming access lasts for 24 hours once started.