Saturday, March 1, 2014

Riverside's Walking the Wire "Merges" Apt Acting and Deft Directing

By James E. Trainor III

Iowa City - The word "merge" can have a lot of connotations. One imagines driving, certainly, but also two things combining, coalescing, becoming a new thing, maybe a company, a family, a partnership. It's a very rich word to wrap a theme around, so it's understandable that Riverside Theatre's annual monologue show, Walking the Wire: Merge has such a wide variety of offerings.

The show, directed by Jody Hovland, consists of twelve stories presented by seven actors. It runs through March 9th.

What is most striking is the many different ways the various writers use the theme. At times it is a jumping-off point, at other times, a punchline. This results in a number of very different stories, many of which create their own engaging worlds. These are most effective, however, when they start with a clear character, as in Janet Story Schlapkohl's "P.S. I Merged" (performed by Elijah Jones). Schlapkohl's piece tells the story of a special education student who is "merging" into the general school population. He is an incredible mathematician who struggles with social skills, which is evident from Jones' awkward cadence and the way he squirms in his chair. However, he's read his IEP (Individual Education Plan), and he's done all the math and knows exactly how many seconds of conversation he has to get in to meet his goals. It's a very clever setup, at once satirical and empathetic, and between Schlapkohl's writing and Jones' acting, the alienation this character feels and the shortcomings of standardized approaches are made shatteringly clear. It's a very funny piece that ends on a high note, but it's also an insightful look at the world from the perspective of someone who seems very different, but maybe isn't so much as you'd think.

"Merge," by Jesse Longman (performed by Tim Budd), approaches the theme from a very literal perspective. We see an anal-retentive, fussy driving instructor sitting in front of a road map, lecturing us on the rules of the road. Budd's character is very clearly drawn, in his physical and vocal mannerisms as well as his costume. While funny at first, he clearly has a reason for being here, and as Longman carefully drops little hints of exposition, we grow to understand that we're hearing about a fatal traffic accident, one with very emotional stakes for the speaker. It's an excellently crafted speech, delivered with pointed intensity by Budd, and for me it is the dramatic highlight of the evening.

Not every script is as a strong as these two; while a couple are very good, and most of them are at least attention-grabbing, one or two seem to run around in circles or devolve into cliche. Fortunately, any lukewarm writing is made up for by some really dedicated acting. All of these performers are at the top of their game: Ron Clark is funny, Carrie Houchins-Witt is warm and insightful, and Nate Sullivan communicates the pathos of his piece well. As mentioned above, Jones and Budd both give wonderful performances.

Two actors that stood out specifically for showing a lot of range were Jessica Wilson and Kristen Behrendt. Often in Walking the Wire, a performer will present two pieces, and these two got gems because they got to create such markedly different characters. In "The Stripper Seminar" by Frank Higgins, Wilson plays the hardened owner of a strip club, a no-nonsense woman with one goal: to teach women how to fleece men for money. She's funny here because of her strong delivery and her impeccable comic timing. In "Then and Now" by Laura Story Johnson, she's also funny, but more because of her vulnerability and honesty, as this down-to-earth conversational piece tells the story of a young mother who's struggling to cope and wondering what happened to her old self.

Behrendt shows similar range: in "Have a Little Faith" by Jamie Pachino, she portrays a partner and mother, lovingly devoted to her wife, but high-strung and not easily satisfied; in "Contrition," by Amanda Petefish-Schrag she is almost the polar opposite, a fun-loving, carefree woman who is exasperated because her husband is too serious. The moment Behrendt steps on the stage, with her confident stance and free-flowing body language, it is clear this is a totally different person and a totally different piece. One of the fun parts of a night of monologues is seeing actors try on different characters in this way.

While the evening does have its ups and downs, Hovland's direction and a lot of solid work from the company help this year's Walking the Wire "merge" into a cohesive night of theatre that you don't want to miss. So hop in your car and head on down to Riverside... just make sure you pay attention to the street signs along the way!

Walking the Wire: Merge runs through March 9 at 213 N Gilbert St. in Iowa City. More information here.

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