Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Review of Prisoner of Zenda

Rage - When you venture out to watch a full-length show put on by a stage combat troupe group self-named “Rage Theatrics,” you’re almost required to wonder if the production is going to focus on fighting to the detriment of story and acting. Well, maybe you aren’t, but I did. And I was pleasantly surprised.

The stage combat in Rage’s production of The Prisoner of Zenda does indeed take a backseat to the acting and story. As one would expect from the area’s premier and most-experienced group of stage combatants, the fights are fluid, mostly-organic moments of heightened interest that—if anything—are over too soon. Though relegated almost entirely to the second act, these are scenes worth waiting for.

And if the second act is about the payoff (the fights), then the first is about the build-up (the acting and the story). First and foremost, Rage founding member and Zenda star Jason Tipsword (yes that is his real name) does a fine job of separating and characterizing the twin roles of “Rassendyll” and “Rudolf,” two never-met cousins that get mistaken for one another. Nearly ever-present during the show, Tipsword carries the play through many of its slower scenes. Brittney Swenson, playing the main love interest “Flavia,” does an admirable job in her role—looking and acting every bit the part of a confused princess in costumes expertly designed by the second female lead, Nika Niehaus. Niehaus, too, performs commendably on stage amidst the likes of Tipsword, Swenson, and the visually and audibly redoubtable Nate Kula, himself inhabiting the role of the disreputable (if not overtly villainous) “Black Michael,” Rudolf’s brother and chief rival.

Rounding out the notable cast are Adam Turner and Robert Minder, who skillfully assist the plot as “Fritz” and “Sapt”; Rage Board Members Brad Carey and Aaron Hayworth, who humorously bumble and trundle their way through a handful of fight scenes as the henchmen “Bersonin” and Detchard”; and Derek Schmeling—deftly performing as various characters, alternatively outstanding or forgettable, depending on what the particular scene demands.

Of special note for Zenda is the actor K. Michael Moore. Moore, featured as “Rupert of Hentzau,” is the true villain of the play, and there can be little doubt of this fact from the moment he first takes the stage in an early scene with Nate Kula’s Black Michael. This reviewer has always been impressed when an actor is able to project an unmistakable visual mask of scum and villainy, and Moore is the face of evil throughout this performance of Zenda. I look forward to (hopefully) seeing him in other future local productions.

Whereas the pacing throughout the play (with the notable exception of the aforementioned fight scenes) could have been drastically sped up, the scene changes, blocking, and story are collectively engaging enough to allow most theatergoers the opportunity to forgive the show’s 150+ minute runtime. The experienced director Josh Sazon knows how to properly utilize a space, and the sound incorporation of Peter Birk is expert, as always.

So if you’ve got a couple of hours to kill this weekend and you’re in the mood to see a decent play with a little bit of action, a little bit of intrigue, and a lot of great characters, costumes, and removable facial hair, I recommend you swing by North Hall’s Space/Place Theatre for one of the final three performances of Rage Theatrics’ production of The Prisoner of Zenda.

--Andrew R. Juhl

Andrew R. Juhl is an area author and director. He has previously worked with the City Circle Acting Company of Coralville and Rage Theatrics.

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