There are three pieces in each act of Hero Stories, with the first piece in each act being a snippet of an existing work and the other two segments original works. The production opens with The Siege of Rochelle , taken from Dumas' The Three Musketeers. This is the portion of the novel where the Musketeers, plus D'Artagnan and faithful lackey Grimaud, attempt to hold a bastion for one hour to win a bet. The line readings from the leads was a little unpolished - a nearly silent Brian Tanner as Grimaud conveyed more emotion with facial expressions and gestures than the leads did with dialogue - and I think it was a mistake to leave in dialogue referring to the palace intrigue aspects of the novel. That dialogue had nothing to do with the actual action taking place, and it might have been confusing for someone unfamiliar with the story. But the action was first rate. Fast-paced, hectic, thrilling - a flurry of swordplay and motion that was fun to watch. All in all, a good way to start the evening.
I wish I could say that the next piece, Fine Men of Ostermark, was a good way to continue the evening. Sadly, this was the poorest piece of the evening. The work opened on a dark-blue-lit stage with a small circle of bright light off to one side. The circle wasn't large enough to cover the four actors standing in that location, and except for one brief moment later in the work, the lighting never improved. Several of the actors had projection problems, though not being able to hear the actors may have been a blessing: the script was nothing but a long string of sophomoric jokes. Appropriately enough, the only joke that had an enjoyable payoff involved no dialogue, only the grunting of Brad Cary's Ira.
On the other hand the next piece, The Legends of Robin Hood and Little John, was the highlight of the evening. A Rashomonesque retelling of the first meeting between Robin Hood and Little John, the piece features that meeting as seen through the eyes of three characters, Little John (Brad Cary), Robin Hood (Adam Turner), and Little John's wife Fanny (Mollie Laylin). All three actors brought high energy and fine comedic skills to the piece, displaying the sort of give and take that makes theatre come alive. It's always a pleasure to watch good actors playing off each other, taking the energy of another actor and bouncing it back through their own performance. The acting, combined with the smart writing of Jeff Goode and the crisp direction of Nate Kula and Nancy Mayfield, made for a throughly entertaining little screwball comedy.
After a brief intermission, the second act opened with Captain Blood. A very short work, this piece seemed to exist only as a reason to provide a fight scene between Aaron Haworth's Peter Blood and Erik Wissenberg's Levasseur. I'm not complaining, mind you - this was one of the best extended duels of the evening. The fight between the two ranged from blade to fist, and the action was the most realistic of the evening. I just wish the scene had gone on a little longer; what was there made me want to see more.
The next piece, The Post-Apocalyptic Adventures of Charlie Punter & The 8th Century Kid, made me want to see less. A jumble of cliche sci-fi situations and hokey dialogue that went on a bit too long, the piece was redeemed by strong acting and direction. While the cast as a whole was good, Brian Tanner, Adam Turner, and Mollie Laylin in particular stood out, bringing a nice comedic energy to the work. And though long, the piece never lagged; Scott Lewis' direction kept things moving, flowly briskly through a number of different scenes and set changes that in less-skilled hands might have tested the audience's patience.
The evening closed with Pop Tart Hero, a Walter-Mittyesque story written and directed by Matt Falduto. Easily the most heartfelt and emotional piece of the evening, Pop Tart Hero tells the story of Stan, a young man whose interior life is far more exciting and fulfilling than his actual life. Thomas Heinrich is perfectly cast as Stan, and he quickly captures our sympathies, making us root for him to break out of his shell and live the life he wants to live. Falduto's script is funny, thought-provoking, and ultimately heart-breaking. Pop Tart Hero also features the most imaginative use of fight choreography of the evening, as Nate Kula and Nika Niehaus act out a video game fight as Stan and his roommate play a console game. It's the perfect piece to end an extremely enjoyable evening of theatre.
It's interesting to note that in the two best pieces of the evening, The Legends of Robin Hood and Little John and Pop Tart Hero, the fight choreography exists to service the story. In the other pieces, the story exists to service the fight choreography. (Except for Fine Men of Ostermark, where the fight choreography and story both exist solely to service the jokes.) I think that's why those two pieces work the best - the action flows organically out of the stories instead of having the story be a supplement to the fight scenes. In those two works the stories are the goal, rather than a framework for a fight scene. That leads to a work that, like Hero Stories itself, is greater than the sum of its parts. Despite one misfire, Hero Stories as a whole is a production that should not be missed.--David Pierce
David Pierce is a four-time past president of the Iowa City Community Theatre. He has acted, sung, directed, and worked backstage for far too many local productions to mention. He is a writer both by trade and inclination, with law and journalism as an educational background.
(The top picture shows Brad Cary, Mollie Laylin, and Adam Turner in Robin Hood. Bottom picture shows Thomas Heinrich, Matthew Falduto and Emily Dokken in Pop Tart Hero. Both photos taken byShuva Rahim.)