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The Stage: Dazzling debuts this month in theatre


The Whipping Man
The Whipping Man runs Jan. 10-11 and 17-18. — photo by Juan Carlos Herrera

The holidays are over, school is back in session and local theatres have seemingly decided to declare Jan. 24 as “Play Premiere Day.” Boot up your Google Calendars to make room in your schedule for these productions.

The Whipping Man

Dreamwell Theatre

It’s April 1865. A Jewish Confederate soldier returns home after the end of the American Civil War to find his home ransacked, his loved ones gone and the only people left behind are his family’s two former slaves—and tonight is Passover. In The Whipping Man, playwright Matthew Lopez uses a household of Southern Jewish slave-owners (or as their Northern coreligionists called them, “Israelites with Egyptian principles”) and the Exodus narrative to explore the nature of freedom.

The play runs Jan. 10-11 and 17-18 at the Unitarian Universalist Society, along with supplemental presentations. Director Rachael Lindhart and the actors will be at Agudas Achim Congregation in Coralville on Jan. 5 at 10:30 a.m. to discuss the process of creating the production. After the Jan. 18 performance, George Eaton, the command historian of the Rock Island Arsenal, will give a lecture on Civil War military history. For more information, visit dreamwell.com.

[Full Disclosure: The author of this article acted as a consultant for this production.]

Good People

Riverside Theatre

When David Lindsay-Abaire’s comedy Good People premiered on Feb. 8, 2011, he had no idea that issues of socioeconomic class would be pushed into the spotlight as a result of the Wisconsin teachers union protests the following week and the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations several months later. Instead of playing out on a world stage, the action of Good People brings the debate into the intimacy of a living room.

Margie, a resident of a lower income neighborhood in Boston, panics after she is fired from her job as a dollar store cashier. Facing the prospect of ending up in poverty with her disabled daughter, Margie seeks the help of her ex-boyfriend Mike, a doctor who believes that he earned his station in life entirely through hard work. Politicians can argue over whether poverty is the result of either bad circumstances or lack of work ethic, but they will never match the stark intensity of two friends from the same neighborhood examining why their lives diverged. The original Broadway production was nominated for a Tony Award for best play, and Frances McDormand won the Tony for best actress in a play’s leading role for her portrayal of Margie.

The play runs Jan. 24 through Feb. 16 at Riverside Theatre. For more information, visit riversidetheatre.org.

Of Mice and Men

Iowa City Community Theatre

This year’s season of literary classics at the Iowa City Community Theatre continues with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, a novel about two friends who face obstacles as they try to work their way to California during the Great Depression. The novel was published in 1937, and Steinbeck adapted it into a play the following year. The original production earned several awards (pre-Tonys), and it has been a favorite for frequent revivals. Though it was written in the 1930s, the original novel continues to be the target of many book bans, occupying the fifth spot on the American Library Association’s “Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books” from 2000-2009. Form your own opinion and see this work about friendship in the face of loneliness and powerlessness.

The play runs Jan. 24-26 and Jan. 31 through Feb. 2 at the Johnson County 4-H Fairgrounds, Exhibition Hall A. For more information, visit iowacitycommunitytheatre.com.

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Hamlet

National Theatre Live

This holiday season, NBC tried to bring back the live stage play broadcast, an old TV staple. The reviews for The Sound of Music Live were mixed, focusing on the claustrophobic feeling of confining a musical to a soundstage, the lack of audience and the choice of casting country singer (and non-actor) Carrie Underwood as Maria in an effort to boost ratings.

Don’t write off this one attempt as a sign that the live play broadcast has failed. The Englert regularly shows screenings of National Theatre Live (NTL), a series in which the NTL films its stage performances for broadcast around the world. (For the UK and Europe, the broadcasts actually are live. We Yanks have to settle for later screenings.)

The NTL broadcasts take the opposite strategy as the Sound of Music Live. They film in front of a live audience, which provides energy and instant feedback for the performers. Rather than alter the staging to accommodate the cameras, they position the cameras to bring out the best in the performance. Additionally, in past performances they have brought in big-name film actors who are excellent stage actors as well, including Helen Mirren as Phedre and Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein and his monster. The result is an opportunity to see world-class theatre as close as possible to the way it was meant to be seen—and only for the price of a movie ticket, instead of an airplane ticket.

The next NTL screening is the 2010 production of Hamlet. The performance will be at The Englert on Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. For more information, visit englert.org.

Was the Word — “I’m a Huge Fan”

Working Group Theatre

If you’ve ever waited outside a tour bus for a glimpse of your favorite rock star or spent several birthday checks on an obscure piece of memorabilia from your favorite long-running science fiction series, then this evening is for you. In another installment of Working Group Theatre’s storytelling series, local actors and poets will entertain the audiences at The Englert with their experiences in the world of fandom. Tickets are “pay what you can,” and the money will go to a local nonprofit organization. After the performance, follow the crowd to the Clinton Street Social Club for Was the Word: After Dark. An open mic is available for community members to present their own original stories and songs about what they have done for their love of pop culture.

The next performance will be on Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. For more information, visit wastheword.org.

Jorie Slodki earned her MA in theatre research from University of Wisconsin, Madison.


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