Saturday, June 24, 2023

Production news roundup

Summer's usually the dry season for me--both weatherwise here in the Blast Furnace of America and playwise around the country. With schools taking a two- to three-month break, the number of productions drops off dramatically.

But it can also be an exciting time. For summer is the season when community theaters often do their annual all-youth show, or give special outdoor performances in parks and other interesting places.

That's especially the case this year, as I'm getting a healthy number of productions in this sunniest of seasons and at least three of them got big write-ups in the local media.

Kiwi kraziness

The first is for a production of Madhouse! by Stratford High School in Stratford, New Zealand, where it's not summer but winter and schools are fully in session. 

Instead of a preview article, the Stratford Press gave the show a full-blown review and it was an all-thumbs-up rave. Writer Ilona Hanne sends a nice compliment my way by describing the script as "a great read on its own," but saves her greatest praise (as she should) for the cast.

"With characters mainly aged over 18," she writes, "and a cast mainly under that, it's particularly impressive just how well the actors portray their characters, but in some cases actually draw their characters out to be much more than the lines alone allow for."

Which warms this old playwright's heart greatly, for I've always felt that theater is the most collaborative of the arts, and I count on the director, actors, and designers to put their own twist on the show and really make it their own. (The article also taught me a new Maori word.)

Iowa improv

Players Workshop Theater of Burlington, IA got an equally positive review from The Hawk Eye ("Iowa's Oldest Newspaper") for their production of The Enchanted Bookshop, which has become something of a staple for summer theaters.

Margie is of course the lead in that show, and the literary characters who come to life also play key roles in the story, but in this production it was none other than Margie's sassy cat Bombalurina who stole the show, "uttering only sighs, meows and so on", as writer Bob Saar puts it. In fact, Saar goes on to write that the best line in the play was Bombalurina's "perfect catlike response" to a request from Margie: "Nowww?"--a line that I didn't even write!

Saar offers one more note, a spoiler alert as he puts it. "You who are faint of heart may want to cover your eyes during the scene where the burglars tear pages out of real books. Ouch!"

I've read many, many reviews of The Enchanted Bookshop over the years, and it seems that nearly all theaters opt for a tamer take on the scene. Either the actors merely throw the books on the ground or they pull pre-torn sheets of paper out of the books.

I get it. As a book lover, it hurts me to see books damaged in this way (almost as much as it hurt to write this scene!). But for maximum emotional impact--and for hammering home just how precious books are--I urge producing groups to actually destroy the books. You can always buy already damaged books from thrift shops or library clearance sales.

Buckeye boldness

Finally, there's Thompson Square Community Theater of Thompson, OH, whose production of The Enchanted Bookshop got a nice preview article in the News-Herald.

Reporter Steve Couch took a different and very fun tack here, asking many of the cast members what they thought of their roles. My favorite quote came from Seri Buckner. “I enjoy playing Dorothy because she is pretty bossy and sassy in this show!” says the young actor. “My favorite scene is one where I get to yell at Robin Hood. I get to tell off a lot of people in the show.”

But it sounds like all of the kids in this show had a great time. As Breanna Toth, who plays Heidi, says, "I really hope the audience can see how hard we worked on this play but also see how much fun we had at the same time. This was such a fun play to work on and I really hope it shows to the audience."

It's not the sunny weather or the break from school or even the summer productions themselves that make this season so special. It's the attitude of kids like these, who give up their coveted time off to take to the stage and make magic happen.

A great big kudos to all you summertime (and in the southern hemisphere, wintertime) actors!

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