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The Stage: Theatre Cedar Rapids’ Underground New Play Festival


One of my best friends used to work at a state-run hospital for convicts who required intense psychiatric care. She once observed, “Hearing a guy say ‘Jesus told me to kill my wife’ is enough to turn anybody off of religion.” When I learned that Tom Deiker, a playwright featured in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ (TCR) Underground New Play Festival, had received his PhD in Clinical Psychology and worked as an administrator in psychiatric hospitals, I wondered how many times he heard similar statements from patients.

Not all religious believers who kill are mentally ill. Each day brings new headlines of people who have calmly and rationally decided that their religion requires them to kill others. We can easily recognize this in “foreign” beliefs, but Deiker wrote his new play, Honour, to show how religious violence can hit closer to home.

Honour was part of TCR’s festival of new works. Artistic Director Leslie Charipar thinks of the festival as a lab for the playwright, director and actors to hone their craft. In this way, the performance of Honour on Nov. 2 was not just about the aggression inherent in some forms of religious belief, but about the challenge to the artists of how to portray such aggression in a way that feels real and multi-dimensional.

The play is set in the Minneapolis metropolitan area, which has seen a large influx of Muslim Somali immigrants. Voice-over sound bites inform the audience of the tension this clash of cultures has created in the city in the last twenty years. Into that tension comes Sarah (Amy Rehnstrom), a middle-aged, sweater-wearing Catholic who seems lifted out of that story in The Onion,, “Religious Cousin Ruins Family’s Christmas.” She worries that putting together a puzzle is too “fun” an activity for Advent, and she reportedly kicked her husband out of the house after he insisted that it was no longer a sin to eat meat on Fridays.

Sarah is also poised to kick out her two children. Fritz (Brandon Dean), her twenty-something son, is the atheist straw man to Sarah’s blustering Catholicism. Sarah’s 15-year-old daughter, Juju (Emmy Buonadonna), provides a quieter presence and needed balance—at least, for the first half of the play. Juju is harboring the secret that she is a lesbian and in love with her Muslim neighbor, Kifaya (Sruthi Palaniappan). She is sure that if her mother were to find out she would go with “plan A, B, or C.” Unfortunately, Sarah does know and goes with a horrifying Plan D that Juju never imagined she was capable of committing.

Honour has many striking moments and images on the way to a powerful ending. Deiker creates some genuine tension over the nature of Kifaya’s death before Juju realizes that her mother arranged for her murder, and he effectively makes his point that extremists of all religions are more alike than different.

On Stage


Meet Me in St. Louis
Theatre Cedar Rapids | Nov. 23-Dec. 17

Univ. of Iowa Theatre Gallery Series:
Mémoire
Nov. 29-Dec. 2
Champagne Gods
Dec. 6-Dec. 8

The Santaland Diaries
David Sedaris
Riverside Theatre | Dec. 7-9

Annie
Iowa City Community Theatre
Dec. 7-9, 14-16

A Christmas Carol
City Circle Acting Company of Coralville | Dec. 14-16, 21-23

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As a new play with limited time for rehearsal, Deiker and director Andy Lesieur acknowledged in a Q & A session that Honour will need more work before it is ready for a larger production. Deiker explained that one of his major influences is agitprop—a highly political, leftist theatre style that came out of the Soviet Union in the 1920’s. This style of theatre forces people to confront social issues, but it can also wear down the audience with polarized characters.

Several conversations between Sarah and her children felt more like rote arguments of Christianity versus Atheism than family members having disagreements. A long section of Kifaya’s mother (Jaime Hein) explaining Muslim burial rituals and Jerusalem’s status as a holy city in Islam felt more like it was educating the audience instead of moving the plot forward.

The moment when Juju realizes that her mother killed the love of her life appeared to happen off-stage. While Juju provided balance in the first act, in the second act she became a sarcastic, tough and vengeful spirit. It is understandable that she would change as a result of her trauma, but adding a scene in which she gradually realized that her mother was behind the murder would have provided a smoother—and more devastating—character transition.

The play was performed in TCR’s Grandon Studio, a black box space with a thrust seating arrangement. Having an audience on three sides of the performing space and no curtain can pose challenges to blocking, and more could have been done to utilize this setup. For much of the second act, Sarah spent long periods on the floor panting or crying, withoutmuch variety in her blocking. The use of strobe lights to transition between scenes was a poor choice, particularly since there was no warning to the audience that they would be used. (The program did have disclaimers on two plays that had “a frank discussion about abortion.” As far as I know, frank discussions have not been known to cause headaches or seizures.)

The plays featured in TCR’s Underground New Play Festival might move on to larger productions. Their upcoming play, The Summerland Project, began as an entry in last year’s festival.  With a tighter script, fleshed-out characters and more inventive staging, Honour has the potential to be a powerful examination of religious extremism in our midst.

Jorie Slodki earned her MA in Theatre Research from University of Wisconsin-Madison and has past experience in acting, directing, and playwriting.  She is currently the Audience Education volunteer for Riverside Theatre, writing their “Between the Lines” dramaturgical blog.

much variety in her blocking. The use of strobe lights to transition between scenes was a poor choice, particularly since there was no warning to the audience that they would be used. (The program did have disclaimers on two plays that had “a frank discussion about abortion.” As far as I know, frank discussions have not been known to cause headaches or seizures.)
The plays featured in TCR’s Underground New Play Festival might move on to larger productions. Their upcoming play, The Summerland Project, began as an entry in last year’s festival.  With a tighter script, fleshed-out characters and more inventive staging, Honour has the potential to be a powerful examination of religious extremism in our midst.

Jorie Slodki earned her MA in Theatre Research from University of Wisconsin-Madison and has past experience in acting, directing, and playwriting.  She is currently the Audience Education volunteer for Riverside Theatre, writing their “Between the Lines” dramaturgical blog.


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