By Angie Toomsen
Iowa City - Riverside Theatre, Iowa City’s resident professional theatre company, has launched this year’s Walking the Wire: Monologues at Riverside. Walking the Wire has become an audience favorite in Riverside’s season, as evidenced by the full house on opening night this past Friday.
To those unfamiliar with Walking the Wire, Riverside Theatre puts out a call for ten-minute monologues around a central theme. This year’s theme is “OMG.” Yes, that OMG. The acronym that has earned a place in the “parlance of our times” through its popularity with tweens, texters and Tweeters.
But, lest you assume Walking the Wire is piece-upon-piece of neo-Valleygirl-isms and the truncated dispositions of text-heads, fear not. In actuality, Walking the Wire is about the “Oh My God” moment. That moment—often accompanied by an inhalation of recognition—that inspires any number of emotions and states-of-being, including but not limited to: thrill, anticipation, alarm, wonderment, disconcert, sadness, contrition, prayer, and so on.
From pleading to God over a pregnancy stick to early sexual experiences dashed to budding love, this year’s theme inspired very personal, moving and often hilarious interpretations of the now culturally-ingrained turn-of-phrase.
WTW’s two opening pieces take the “my God” at face value and include The Almighty as a remembered subject of note and silent monologue partner. Devoid of politicking or confrontation, the pieces bring human and experiential perspectives to divisive topics.
In “A Damn Damp Novena,” by Ron Clark, Carrie Houchins-Witt is a soldier mom engaged in a pleasant, albeit one-sided conversation-turned-negotiation with God about her triplet daughters. Of chief concern is her lesbian daughter, who wants to have her child baptized in the church. Houchins-Witt is a warm and confident opener, kicking off the night. The fullness of familial detail in “Novena’s” storytelling is, not surprisingly, reminiscent of Clark’s piece in the 2010 Walking the Wire, “Uncle Leo’s Revenge.” As a side note, Clark’s piece last year also included triplets. Do I sense an ongoing motif? Or a coming anthology?
“The God of ‘Animal Planet,’” by Amanda Petefish Schrag, finds actress Jessica Wilson recalling moments of prayer that have taken place in the bathroom. Praying not to be pregnant, praying to get pregnant, then praying to stay pregnant. Schrag’s piece starts somewhat lighter, arriving at a dark and satisfying surprise conclusion. Wilson’s energy is intimate and honest.
Several pieces touch on “OMG” moments when romantic love is nascent and surprising. Brandon Bruce has a likeable ease as a Philadelphia cabbie recounting the night he won his wife’s heart with a little parking lot chivalry in Seth Bauer’s “Not a Bad Time of It.” Bruce’s authentic warmth as a performer extends to “(That) Guy Meets (That) Girl,” by Laura Nessler, about an endearing, fumbling encounter with a girl who wants to ask him out.
Gwendolyn Rice’s “I Hear Everything” is about a man with hyperacusis, an affliction of extra sensitive hearing. Gifted storyteller, Mike Moran, is a man who hears everything, and, as a consequence, can’t really hear a thing. Moran invites the audience to the refreshing silence of the library archives where he works, and imparts a tender and unexpected encounter with a hushed woman who utters words with great difficulty. This piece is one of the most touching of the evening and I heard a few people around me whisper “wow” and “that was nice” in the closing blackout.
Several of the monologues dealt with early sexual encounters and/or sexual identities crushed by judgment in a time when they aren’t even fully formed. A tragic infringement indeed, though Walking the Wire’s three representative pieces are primarily comedies.
In “The Six Million Dollar Man Monologue” by Joe Jennison, also performed by Moran, a man packing to move encounters a doll he idolized, and an early encounter that shaped his sexual identity. Jennison’s coming-of-age comedy seems as though it could be an excerpt from a longer, one man show even though it stands on its own. I credit this impression in equal parts to writing detail and to Moran’s expansiveness and inclusion of the audience in his performance. Moran embraced the idea that monologues can be dialogues, with live sentient beings who really do want to exchange energy and be acknowledged. Jennison’s piece easily lends itself to such interaction.
A similar scenario materializes in “I’m Barbara Eden” by Michael Whistler. The piece finds Chris Okishi joyously imparting the story of his little boy self and his best friend, carefree, only to have his early expression of self squashed by a disapproving adult. Okishi, who also appears—with dialect—in Richard Ballon’s “How We Began,” is like watching a smile take the stage. He clearly loves to perform and his energy is welcoming and infectious.
Though more subdued and distressed in her first act piece, Jessica Wilson does a 180-degree turn for “Banana Split, by Ellen Grafton. Taking the audience on a very visceral encounter of freshman back seat teenage lust—stifled by a flashback to a very odd exercise in a sex education course—Wilson is fun and the story her character recalls is cringe-worthy.
Another comic highlight that doesn’t fit into any of the categories above but is, nonetheless, rife with “OMG” moments, is Janet Schlapkohl’s “Childbirth Methods,” a hilarious trip through the evolution of childbirth over several decades. Riverside’s artistic director, Jody Hovland, plays a maternity nurse who maintains a healthy skepticism as she watches methods of giving birth change through the years. Fads, shifting roles, contradictions and absurdities abound. Schlapkohl’s piece has the most cohesive writing and concise progression of story in the evening. This piece also seemed the most rehearsed and “in the bones” of the perfomer, as Hovland navigated its turns and surprises with skilled comic timing.
As a “bonus” and fitting finale, Walking the Wire audiences are treated to a side-splitting preview of Megan Gogerty’s one-woman show, Megan Gogerty Wants You to Know, opening September 2011 at Riverside. To those unfamiliar with her work, Gogerty’s comedic writing is brilliant and her energy on stage is larger than life. And she is an explosion of hilarity. She is a seasoned one-woman-show-girl who, in Walking the Wire, recounts a trip shuttling her baby to NYC on a plane.
Thinking on her piece days later, I recalled the imagery her story created in my mind—the planes, the disapproving faces of passengers, the tiny bathroom where she struggled to change a diaper. That’s when I know a monologist is really good—when the character’s memories become my memory of the piece, not the actor or actress performer. (Though her shiny red shoes were to die for. I’ll remember those for a while.)
Walking the Wire is directed by Ron Clark, Riverside’s resident artist and production manager. The evening flew by, aided by effectively-timed lighting shifts within and between monologues, designed by Drew Bielinski. The sound and transition music, designed by Sarah Smith, also helped the evening maintain meaningful momentum.
This year’s writers hail from Iowa, Philadelphia, Chicago, Maryville, MO, Amherst, MA, and Madison, WI.
Walking the Wire runs March 11-13 on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For more information go to www.riversidetheatre.org.