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New Play Festival presents students’ work

BY RYAN COLE | APRIL 28, 2011 7:20 AM

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Over the course of a week, Iowa City residents can experience the Mexican-American War, a torture-laden military prison in Afghanistan, and a Cherokee family’s journey through the antebellum American South — all from the comfortable seats in the Theatre Building.

The 2011 Iowa New Play Festival, which will kick off with Rogue’s Dance, by Janet Schlapkohl, at 5:30 p.m. Sunday and run through May 7, contains no shortage of eclecticism. The festival will feature full productions, all based on new scripts from the University of Iowa Playwrights’ Workshop, at 5:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. every day next week except May 3 in the Theatre Building.

Admission is $5 for the general public and free for UI students with valid IDs.

Graduate student Kevin Artigue, whose play People of the Ditch will run May 4, said he believes the novelty of the performances and enthusiasm of the cast and crew will create a positive and enjoyable experience for those in attendance.

“We’re all part of building this thing that’s brand-new and never been seen,” he said. “The hope is that audiences will be as equally excited and receptive to the success and failure of trying to make something.”

Artigue’s play, set in an Afghanistan prison in late 2002, uses an unfamiliar setting to explore a familiar issue — the compulsion to make choices in life, with consequences both unpredictable and undesirable and the degree to which people are responsible for the results.

Some of the works address more local issues. Jessica Foster’s Proficient tackles dysfunction in the American educational system, focusing specifically on continued budget cuts to public education and the “No Child Left Behind” act George W. Bush signed into law in early 2002.

Proficient, which will début May 6, chronicles a group of elementary-school students gradually changing from average pupils to “robotic test-taking machines” — a reality Foster said was reflected in some of her cast.

“I had a [mother] of one of the children in our play ask the child if school is more like the beginning or end of the play,” Foster said. “And she was surprised when the child told her, ‘The end.’ ”

Not all the performances will be overtly political — Jen Silverman’s And Humbaba Came from His Great House of Cedar tells a tale of Gilgamesh, an epic hero from Mesopotamian mythology, for example — and many contain humorous elements to complement the drama.

In addition to the full productions, the festival will feature readings of students’ works. Many of these scripts are in their formative stages, said playwright Schlapkohl, and a reading offers audience members a chance to see a play develop from its infant stages.

“It’s going to be super exciting for them because they’ll be getting in on the ground floor of seeing something,” the graduate student said.

This year’s festival is dedicated to Cosmo Catalano, a former professor of theater who passed away in January. Though many playwrights said they didn’t get to know him personally, Artigue said Catalano’s reputation as a hardworking and dedicated advocate of new plays remains.

“The fact that we have a festival celebrating new works of art is in large thanks to his efforts,” Artigue said.


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