2009 Year in review: Highlights on the local stages

By Skip Carter
Year-end lists can be a fun way to look back at the year that was and remember the best of what came out while we were in the midst of our busy lives. In the end, those lists cannot be anything but an entirely subjective viewpoint, either of one critic or a group of editors (like the list of best books on Amazon.com). My emphasis in the arts has always been in theater but in coming up with a summary of the highlights for 2009, no one could be more biased (given my active involvement and friends and family involved in the local theater community, and because I was not able to see every show due to busy schedule), so it’s okay to underline the above-mentioned word “subjective” in the following, listed in no particular order:
Tara Rae Norman as the piranha in Westside’s “Oh Dad, Poor Dad.” Anyone who saw the show will forever remember Ms. Norman’s tireless pet piranha who stole the show in Westside’s laughfest. Director Phil Shepherd gets kudos for putting Norman in the fish tank, recruiting puppeteer Dale Spencer to create the piranha, and overall helming an engaging night of Absurdist Theater last summer.
Derek Gregerson and Dana Atkins in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at Mystique. Gregerson and Atkins carried the day in a creditable production of the Tony-Award winning Broadway musical. Gregerson, a true triple threat, also appeared in “All Shook Up” and “Seussical the Musical” among others, and was the area’s musical theater performer of the year.
Idaho Summer Repertory’s “Seussical the Musical.” Musical theater guru Blair Bybee brought in out-of-town professionals and mixed them with local talents and the result was this delightful production of the Broadway musical re-imagining of the wonderful world of Dr. Seuss. The repertory cast also performed “All Shook Up” and “Lend Me a Tenor” as part of the inaugural summer program at ISU spearheaded by Bybee.
Ted Bonman in “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” “Journey’s End,” “Doctor Faustus,” “Speed-the-Plow,” “The Menaechmi,” and “Playboy of the Western World.” It was a good year for Ted the Terrific—everyone knew he’d make a perfect Albert Einstein in Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” at ISU and he certainly was. Even more impressive was his mesmerizing turn in the lead role of Christopher Marlowe’s “Faustus” at Old Town Actor’s Studio (playing opposite a very good Ross Irwin as Mephistopheles in a production directed by Angeline Underwood). Bonman followed this up by nailing the challenge of David Mamet dialogue in “Speed-the-Plow” directed by Christopher Ellis. Back at ISU in the fall, Bonman opened “The Menaechmi” in a toga and worked the Irish dialect in “Playboy.”
Joseph Tornabene-Zalas in “Relatively Speaking,” “Oh Dad, Poor Dad,” “Journey’s End,” “Medea,” and “Farragut North.” Tornabene-Zalas rivaled Bonman for acting versatility in 2009 and because of his Ryan Reynolds-like physique was memorably required to strip down to his skivvies in nearly every show (WWI longjohns in “Journey’s End” at OTAS). It was his range of skills that was most impressive, however, beginning with farce in Westside’s “Relatively Speaking,” absurdist comedy in “Oh Dad,” two distinctive character parts in “Journey’s End,” a stirring take on a classical piece in “Medea,” and a full blown dramatic meltdown of a brash political spinmeister in “Farragut North,” also at OTAS.
Dusty Heyrend in “Playboy of the Western World” at ISU. Heyrend was the standout in the production of J. M. Synge’s classic play about a young Irishman who boasts about killing his father. Director Norm Schroder effectively used video projections in ISU’s Rogers Black Box Theatre and that’s the first glimpse we see of Heyrend’s character, the supposedly killed da of Christy Mahon. Heyrend’s menacing old codger brought the show a jolt of energy every time he was on stage.
Christopher Ellis as actor, director, set designer. Ellis was well known for his acting roles locally for years and he brilliantly anchored the ensemble cast in OTAS’ “Journey’s End” back in May. It was his set design in creating the World War One bunker in the play that many people raved about. Ellis rounded out his resume for 2009 by directing a taut production of “Speed-the-Plow” at OTAS.
Joe B. Haney in “Rabbit Hole,” “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “Speed-the-Plow.” Haney, the area’s most consistent and reliably brilliant actor, had some star turns in 2009 with a trifecta of distinctive roles, including a memorable Bottom in OTAS’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Bob Spencer in “Farragut North” and Walter Mecham in “Journey’s End.” Supporting roles sometimes go unappreciated but the work of these two exemplifies the importance of every part in a play. Spencer, whose voice is well known on television commercials and as a morning deejay on one of those country radio stations, practically stole the show as the rival campaign manager in “Farragut North.” Mecham was equally memorable as the company cook in “Journey’s End.”
Costumes, Set, Special Effects and cast in “White Christmas” at Mystique. Daniel Hansen and Jenna Phillips were great singing and dancing throughout Mystique’s holiday extravaganza; Brian Atkins displayed both the charm and singing chops of Bing Crosby and Kacey Hulse was a period-perfect chanteuse from the 1950s in a production directed by Lisa Woodland. But how about the outstanding costumes, set design and special effects (including actual snow falling on the stage)?
Year of the Avant Garde. Besides “Oh Dad, Poor Dad,” there were plenty of fearless productions of Absurdist Theatre in 2009, including Diana Potter heading up a fine ensemble cast in Christopher Durang’s “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it all for You” (directed by Sherri Dienstfrey); Jackie and Mike Czerepinski (among others) in Durang’s “Baby With the Bathwater” (directed by Angeline Underwood); Norm Schroder in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” (directed by Angel Palmer); and an excellent pairing of Lauren Bernal and Mark Overocker in Ariel Dorfman’s “Purgatorio” (directed by Jamie Romine-Gabardi).
2009 Show of the Year: “Rabbit Hole” As stated, the above highlights were in no particular order, but the best stage performance of the year (in my humble opinion) was hands down “Rabbit Hole” at OTAS. The ensemble cast was uniformly excellent in portraying David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer-Prize winning drama about the ramifications upon a family following the tragic death of a child. Haney, Lisa Hammond, Sherri Dienstfrey, Lauren Bernal, and Mikel Mecham were all magnificent night after night in their run of shows under the direction of Camile Carter.
Skip Carter is a local attorney and a board member of Pocatello’s newest theater company, the Old Town Actors Studio.