REVIEW: One woman show urges audience to "Pay attention. Watch it. Get back."
IOWA CITY -- Janet Schlapkohl connects her personal story with key events, ranging from the local to the international, in her one-woman show, "Coming of Age in Chore Boots." The Riverside Theatre production, directed by Tim Budd, is heartwarming and humorous, while addressing serious issues including the plight of young men sent to Vietnam and the farm crisis of the 1980s. Schlapkohl highlights how the wider world can intrude on one's individual story, even if one isn't attending to much beyond one's own sphere. "Coming of Age in Chore Boots" is made up of interconnected vignettes (attendees of Riverside Theatre's annual "Walking the Wire" monologue may recognize some of the material), which Schlapkohl links together with a recurring mantra: "Pay attention. Watch it. Get back." The highlight of the first act is an extended sequence in which Schlapkohl interweaves her story of serving as a bat girl for the high school softball team with reflections on the Vietnam conflict. Schlapkohl, who was just a tot when she was asked to charge into the field of play to retrieve bats, artfully contrasts the battlefield of sport with the very real battlefields young soldiers encountered. It's a beautifully written sequence that Schlapkohl performs with an appealing earnestness that nevertheless calls to the fore the high cost of war on scales both large and small. In the second half of the show, Schlapkohl had the capacity audience laughing with her portrayal of all four characters (including herself) at a monthly meeting of farm wives--a group into which she herself did not comfortably fit. Her depiction of preparations for and attendance at a department party after she and her husband returned to school was also quite funny. In between these moments, she delivered the somber story of the loss of the farm she and her husband had struggled to keep going. While the second act balances the joy and tragedy of life well, it is also a bit uneven. A story about her back-to-the-land friends, while funny and well-performed, is arguably out of keeping with the rest of the piece, given that it focuses on others with Schlapkohl at the periphery merely reacting rather than participating. The show also ends somewhat bumpily, with Schlapkohl sitting on the edge of the stage attempting to draw all of her themes together, but not quite succeeding. Only the "pay attention" portion of her mantra sneaks into these final moments, and that begs the question of how the other admonishments might apply. Arthur Virnig has created a simple but wonderful set for the play while Drew Bielinski's lighting design serves Schlapkohl's story and its shifting moods extremely well. The show is dotted with humorously employed song clips that emphasize key moments. The device is handled well, and never detracts from Schlapkohl's own storytelling, which is, by and large, exceptional. ARTS EXTRAWhat: “Coming of Age in Chore Boots” Where: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City When: Through Dec. 8; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays Tickets: $15 to $30, (319) 338-7672, Riversidetheatre.org