Monday, December 8, 2014

Camo! Is a Clever Collaboration

By Sharon Falduto
Photos by Emily McKnight

L-R: Kalvin Goodlaxon, Rip Russell, Iver Hovet, Bob Shaffer
Iowa City - Iowa City Community Theatre’s Camo! The Musical is a snapshot of a time in our recent past when men were the men who hunted and wore camouflage, and women were the women who kibitzed and crocheted. It is a joint effort with Combined Efforts Theatre, “Iowa’s only theatre company with a mission purposefully to include individuals with disabilities in compelling and entertaining performances.” CET and ICCT both serve the mission well with this seriocomic piece.

The musical was written by local talents Janet Schlapkohl and Chris Okiishi. How lucky are we to have such world class song and story writers in Iowa City? Camo! dips into many topical subjects — the role of women and men in a changing word, the disconnect between brothers who have different goals in life, racism, the wounds of childhood, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

The show is somewhat loosely plotted, revolving around the lives of small town hunters and their wives in the rural midwest. It is the late 1970s, and Rip Russell’s Steve has returned from the Vietnam war missing a hand and experiencing shell shock. Rip displays a tense vulnerability behind his manly camouflage. His central relationship is with his younger brother, Kenny. In Steve’s vision, Kenny takes over the family farm and has a better life than Steve’s, one without war and strife. Kenny, on the other hand, has aspirations of going to college, and prefers writing poetry to going out hunting with the boys. Jordan LaFauce as Kenny walks the line well between sensitive poet soul and admirer of his tough older brother. Steve’s wife, Kathy Maxey’s Lorraine, sings a heartbreakingly about Steve’s night time war flashbacks with an understanding wistfulness in the song “Just Behind His Eyes.”

Steve’s friend is named Tommy P—his last name is Anderson, but when you pee your pants in 2nd grade in a rural town, nicknames stick. He is dealing with his own lesser post traumatic stress; the act of having been teasesd throughout his life scars him. Dennis Lambing plays Tommy with a fierce attitude, punctuating his song “Tommy P’s Revenge” with the guttural refrain “I feel better. When I. Hunt.” This song showcases the Combined Efforts’ Dance Team, as they embody various ages of classmates throughout Tommy’s life, from 2nd grader through religious education, with well choreographed stage presence.

L-R: Robyn McCright, Meredith Saletta, Ali Heath, Kathy Maxey
The men and women are separated by geography throughout most of the show. The men are all out in the woods and most of the women gather in Julie’s living room. Lindsay Raasch’s Julie is the strongest woman of the ensemble, with a wit and verve that serve her character well. She is a young woman of today, a college graduate with some new ideas about how men and women should share in child rearing and even the birthing process. Her catchy tune “A Thing Called Lamaze” is easily one of the light hearted highlights of the show, and it leads to what for me was the show’s emotional centerpiece—Mike Wilhelm plays Dan, Julie’s husband, who echoes her Lamaze song and then segues into the poignant “Safer in the Shadows” as he sits in his duck blind, worried about what the future will hold for him as a father. His anguish at having to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight as a father is palpable.

The plot thread which unfortunately felt the weakest, as I feel it has the most potential, was the relationship between Vietnamese divorcĂ©e My-Dep and Vietnam vet (and African American) Walter Jacobs. Celine Kim’s My-Dep is a strong female character; she is the only woman in this play who ventures into the woods. It is never quite adequately explained how it is she got to this backwater from Vietnam, though it is implied she was a “war bride,” and it is indicated that this is offensive. The question is asked in “Where Did You Come From?” but not adequately answered. She’s got strong convictions but I would have liked to have known more about her motivations. Ruben Lebron as the genteel African American fisherman who meets her inhabits the classic musical role of “man who falls in love too soon,” which, to her credit, My-Dep doesn’t care for one bit. Although as an Iowa Citian I could understand how Walter would be easily accepted into the circle of white hunters at the Tip Top Tap, this seemed to be a strained premise for 1970s small town. It does help, of course, that the poet soul Kenny breaks the tension in the room by pointing out what it is about Walter that makes the others uncomfortable—“They hunt. You fish.”

The climax of the show is when Julie’s water breaks and Dan is nowhere to be found; he has drifted off into some weird frostbitten dreamland, escorted by Derek Johnson’s enormous dancing stork in a scene reminiscent of Oklahoma’s dream ballet, only in camouflage hunting gear.

The set, designed by Janet Schlapkohl and painted by Evie Stanskie, is wonderfully utilized; the center of the stage is the tree stand and duck blind in the woods. A functional tree stand, by Steve Hall, anchors the stage and serves as centerpiece, hiding place, and puppet show stage. To the left of the stage is Julie’s living room, where the women gather to do their weekly crafting. The antlers decorating Julie and Dan’s house would make the set seem very homey to anyone with a hunter in the family, and serve as the impetus for Tommy P’s wife, Mary (Ali Heath)’s comic song, “Antlers.”

The right of the stage is the Tip Top Tap, where the house band is the accompaniment for the musical. The musical stylings of Tim Schulte, Larry Mossman, Jim Sirois, Jonathan Taushceck, Julie Rideout, and Joel Carver are absolutely tip-top and provide great accompaniment without ever overshadowing the singers in the capable hands of music director Jessica Palmer.

Chris Okiishi's music, transcribed for the band by Jason Sifford and with lyrics by scriptwriter Janet Schlapkohl, was great and catchy with some unexpected twists—songs that scaled down the octave when the ear expected them to go up, for instance, represented some of the creative musicality.

Directors Krista Neumann and Janet Schlapkohl created some inspired pieces of stagecraft. I especially enjoyed the poses the women made at the end of the song “Evolution,” mimicking the famous homo sapien evolution picture ranging from stooped over woman to woman standing stark upright.

Jordan LaFauce as Kenny
My favorite motif was the recurring use of the deer in the woods. Hahn Krantz and Jeremy Richardson produced wonderfully simple deer costumes. The deer gathered in silence several times throughout the show, most powerfully when they surrounded Kenny, the teenaged boy who was far too sensitive a soul to want to shoot them. They also punctuated Julie’s “Lamaze” ditty with some subtle but enjoyable tango-ing, courtesy of choreographers Heidi Bibler and Christina Sullivan.

I could definitely see this show moving on to other stages; it might require some more in-depth character exploration and, painfully, cutting a few songs—there is a bit of a pacing problem revealed in the program itself, when we see that act one has 15 songs and act two has six. Much as I love some of the songs individually, they may be better served as part of a medley.

Camo! The Musical is a unique experience. It’s wonderful to see so many members of our community get their chance to play, act, and sing on ICCT’s stage. The broad ranging aspects of the show’s conflicts mean there is something for everyone to ruminate on after the show. You can visit these humble souls at Iowa City Community Theatre on December 12 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. and December 7 and 14 at 2 p.m. Tickets available here.

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