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Student-produced productions fill weekend itinerary

Photos: Nicole Malmquist

Standing On My Knees (Xiang Xiang Liew)

Artistic genius and craziness are best friends. Everyone knows that, don’t they? Everyone has experienced a work of art—a painting, a poem, a film, a song—that made him go, “What on earth was that person thinking?” or “What do you mean this wasn’t made on drugs?”

Creativity is all about making connections between concepts that don’t usually go together, connections that people don’t normally make. In order to create something of artistic value, a person needs to see things in a different way than most people would see them, also known in most circles as being crazy.

It isn’t surprising, then, that the only way artistic geniuses create is to dig into the deepest, darkest corners of themselves, rip out the most twisted, bloodiest guts and splatter them all over the page. Or canvas. Or musical instrument of choice. (Not literally. Well, in most cases at least.)

There is no such thing as artistic technique. Not in the world of fiction anyway. Because how boring would that be? Would people rather watch an author go slowly insane and destroy herself and everything around her churn out the literary masterpiece of the century? Or would they rather follow her as she writes horrible first drafts, attends writing workshops and labors over insignificant details that none of the readers will notice or appreciate?

No wonder the crazy artist character is a cliché. I’m not saying that it can’t be done well, or in an original way, if the recent success of “Black Swan” is any indication. I’m making this point in order to highlight the achievements of the cast and crew of “Standing On My Knees,” a student-directed play that ran for three days last weekend at the Harmon Fine Arts Center.

The play focused on the struggle of a schizophrenic poet Catherine. As the story unfolded, it became clear that Catherine had to choose between taking her meds and writing horrendously or letting the schizophrenia take over her to get back her poetic genius. The big question was, of course, what is more important? Her art, or her sanity?

In the hands of a less competent director, “Standing On My Knees” could very easily have been a bland, cliché story about a crazy artistic type. Instead, due to the excellent casting and directing by Ben Raanan, a senior directing major, this particular production took this rather worn storyline and infused it with renewed freshness and vigor.

The actors were absolutely perfect for their respective roles; all of them succeeded in transcending the particular stereotypes they had been given. A common criticism of this play is how flat the character of Catherine is written. She is defined entirely by her illness and her craft. But one wouldn’t have known that from the way Drake’s Marissa Ford played her.

Ford’s characterization of Catherine was rich, complex and nuanced. Her astounding attention to detail, the subtle yet always surprising variations in her character’s expressions, mannerisms and responses, and her intense connection to the people around her, all combined to make her portrayal of Catherine unexpectedly human.

The audience didn’t think of Catherine as just another crazy artist, it saw her as a real person. Theatergoers got the sense that she had a history and a life outside of what was shown in the play.

The characterizations of the supporting characters were pitch perfect. Caitlin Teters, who played Catherine’s psychiatrist, achieved a fine balance between professionalism and compassion. She always remained calm and graceful, yet the audience got a sense that she sincerely cared about Catherine’s well-being.

Noby Edwards, who played Catherine’s best friend Alice, provided much of the levity and humor in the play with her rapid-fire speech and impeccable comic timing. Yet she was far from being a one-hit comic relief character. Even though she maintained her light, flitting energy throughout the play, there was much more to her than just the bubbly career woman and supportive friend. Her wonderful ambivalence toward her friend created some of the most enjoyable conflicts in the play.

Jason Millsap, as Catherine’s love interest Robert, shouldered the heavy burden of showing the audience precisely what Catherine’s stakes are, what she stands to lose. His relationship with her was ultimately the main driving force behind the play. Millsap brought a sweetness and vulnerability to Robert and retained it even as his character and the relationship developed and changed. He maintained an internal consistency that allowed the audience to sympathize with him until the very end.

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You (Asmita Gauchan)

Studio 55 in the Harmon Fine Arts Center saw the staging of the student-directed Drake theatre production of “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You” this weekend. Senior Moira Nash helmed the production as her senior capstone project and was one of four student directors who got the opportunity to direct main stage Drake theatre productions this year.

“Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You” is a black comedy written by Christopher Durang. It is about a domineering nun, who bullies her students into following the words of the Bible. The character of Sister Mary Ignatius is an obvious caricature. Her beliefs are exaggerated in dialog with such an unlikable yet hilarious overtone that it is easy to see why this play is as popular and controversial as it is.

Nash, who originally wanted to direct a musical but couldn’t do so due to budgeting reasons, said, “I decided if I couldn’t do a musical, I’d do a comedy. Christopher Durang just happens to be a favorite playwright of mine.” One could say that the choice had paid off when the play opened on Friday evening to a full house that kept bursting into laughter every two minutes.

Amidst the mirthful hysterics in the audience, there were also a couple of grim faces that couldn’t be overlooked. This was to be expected considering how the play takes constant blunt jabs at Christianity. However, upon being asked if she were nervous about tackling a satirical take on Catholicism, Nash said, “In this day, I wasn’t really worried about anyone getting offended by the subject matter. Particularly in Des Moines People in Des Moines are pretty accepting of everything. It’s pretty tame when you consider some of the real things going on in the Catholic Church.”

Nash’s confidence is obvious in the work she has done on the production. Her assured direction coupled with Durang’s biting words made for a very entertaining night for those of us in attendence. Although some adjustments in blocking probably would have helped smooth over a few scene executions, it was nothing that impacted the overall outcome.

Carrie Gabbert, who is a BFA Musical Theatre major from Burlington, Wisc., is not new to the Drake stage. She has appeared on several past productions and seems to have honed her craft well over the years. As much of this play was a prolonged monologue of sorts for her, it was important that Gabbert nail the part of Sister Mary, and Gabbert gave a dynamite performance on the opening night comfortably meeting everybody’s expectations.

The supporting cast consisting of theatre students Marissa Broich, Brent LeBlanc, Matt Haupert, Tyler Lubinus and Breanna Thaden all deserve special mention for their notable work. Standing up against Gabbert’s ferocious Sister Mary, each one of them was able to hold their own, and crack up the audience with their character’s quirks.

Overall, Nash’s rendition of “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You” was a successful production. It was funny, extremely over-the-top and even had a moment or two of sincerity among all the gags.

“Every directing project presents me with new challenges and new opportunities to practice my art, and learn more about life and people,” Nash said of the whole experience.

I have nothing but good wishes and high hopes for the lovely Moira Nash, who will be graduating this semester.

Upcoming Drake Theatre productions

“The Glory of Living”
April 28- May 1

“Into the Woods”
April 14-15

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