Friday, April 29, 2011

Working Group's brilliant showcase

by Rachel Brown

Iowa City - On a cold, rainy April evening I was grateful to be ushered into such the warm and inviting environment that is Riverside Theatre. I'm a bit ashamed to say that in the nearly 4 years I've been in Iowa City, this is the first time I have had the opportunity to attend a show at Riverside. Not for lack of wanting, mind you. It just always happened that I was either involved in another show or I heard about things too late. Attending the first weekend of Working Group Theatre's Under Construction was a great introduction to the well known and well attended Riverside Theatre.

This first weekend of Under Construction was a showcase of four local individuals each with a different style and a unique story to tell. It was mixture of serious reflection and comedy punctuated by intervals of old-timey folk music provided by the evening's house band, Mutiny in the Parlor. It was much like how I imagine a '50s beatnik coffee house, minus the berets and cigarette smoke.

Approximately 30 seats were set up cabaret style on a section of the Riverside Theatre stage. I'll be honest when I say I had no idea what to expect. This was certainly not a traditional show. I love these types of happenings, though, with the excitement of experiencing something new and unfamiliar.

Each presenter' own style was unique and entertaining.

John Kaufman was the first of four performers to take the stage. He did something I have never seen a performer do before and that was ask the audience to turn their cellphones on. In an age of technology it was fun to see a performer not only embrace and understand the umbilical tie we have to our mobile devices but incorporate it into a section his performance piece. Bravely posting his own cellphone number on the wall he asked audience members to forward him the most recent text they had received. He then incorporated them into an improved song. Kaufman showcased his storytelling ability with a short monologue about the first time he visited a bathhouse in Osaka, Japan with his brother and the terror (and humor) of scrotal discomfort.

After a short break and another song from the house band, Jennifer Fawcett began her series of stories about growing up in Canada, summers riding her bike thought the back roads and her trip to Tanzania working with a small group of theatre artists teaching Tanzanian children by putting together a play in 2 weeks. Her expression and emotion drew me instantly into her memory and I found myself lost in the visions of a dirt country road or a vast green paradise. It was nice to take this little mental vacation into her world.

Idris Goodwin's rhythm and flow of hip-hop poetry was breath-taking. Each line and syllable moved forward in in a way that makes me jealous of his verbal grace. The series of five short poems he presented were influenced by his work with a group of students in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He spoke of students, a tenacious preteen and a 17 year old with a distaste for the pressure she felt from the sky. He mused about his family's question “Are there any black people in New Mexico?” (to which the answer is, yes, but not many,) and painted a verbal portrait of a hip-hop city. It was musical verse and heart wrenching lines delivered with a style that made me want to dance.

Lastly Martin Andrews took the stage and with again a different style began to weave the tale of his confrontation with the idea of becoming a father. He worried out loud about what kind of father he would become and whether he would follow in the footsteps of the men in his past. This humorous and enchantingly emotional piece was felt soul-deep. The feelings of worry, confusion, angst and pure undiluted joy were painted in his words and actions. It was a truly exquisite piece to end the evening.

While these performances had just a short two day run last weekend, Working Group Theatre will continue its presentation of Under Construction tonight through Sunday at Riverside Theatre with two nationally recognized performers: Leslie Ishii (Desperate Housewives and Lost) and Sean Christopher Lewis. Information about these performers and Working Group Theatre can be found online at

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