Community theaters, particularly in small towns, often rely on the tried and true. However, theater is far more exciting when companies take risks. New and daring works can turn into overambitious fiascos, but they can also soar higher than old standards when they succeed.
This past year, two productions stood out as courageous acts of theater. Riverwalk Theatre’s “Conspiracy” and Peppermint Creek Theatre Co.’s “Blackbird” can surely credit their success to the strength of the scripts and the extraordinary commitment of their pro-bono cast and crews. But considerable credit should go to the directors who helmed and/or proposed these ambitious projects, and to the companies backing them. After all, neither show featured catchy songs or cute laugh lines designed for a guaranteed buck. These were engrossing, sometimes grossly descriptive dramas that forced audiences to contemplate situations beyond their daily comfort zones — and they were magnificent.
On paper, “Conspiracy” seemed an impossibility. Transferring Loring Mandel's Emmy Award-winning television script to the stage with a first-time community theater director, an enormous cast and a relatively tiny budget should have prevented the production from ever beginning. The story of 15 Nazis plotting the Holocaust over a lunch conference was not — and was never intended to be — crowd-pleasing fluff. Yet director James Houska persuaded Riverwalk Theatre leaders to consider Mandel's script as a mainstage production. The final result impressed even the author. Innovative blocking that nearly neutralized the lack of camera close-ups, strong acting from Michael Hays and others, plus a stunningly detailed set and costumes combined to create a show that was equally as riveting as the televised version.
Peppermint Creek’s task seemed equally insurmountable. In “Blackbird,” two actors had to believably portray an adult couple seeing each other for the first time since their affair when he was 40 and she was 12. Doak Bloss and Angela Mishler did just that, taking audiences on an exhausting and often heartbreaking journey that left everyone speechless. Director Lela Ivey once again set a new high bar for community productions, applying her brand of high-octane, dark, twisted chemistry to an already volatile script and creating electric performances that took days to digest.
Audiences that saw “Blackbird” understand that the show went far beyond assumptions about pedophilia. They should also know that this was one of Peppermint Creek’s most daring steps yet into the realm of terrifying and awesome theater.