Riverside Theatre has been blazing trails since its inception.
The troupe virtually broke new ground in Iowa City 40 years ago by staging intimate shows with professional actors. And now it’s taking yet another turn, opening its anniversary season online with “Buyer & Cellar,” available for ticket holders to view anytime between 7:30 p.m. Friday through 11:59 p.m. Sept. 20.
Actor Patrick Du Laney, 45, who has been off Broadway since the pandemic shuttered “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” has teamed up with his husband, director Christopher Okiishi, 51, to steer one of their favorite solo shows in a new direction.
It’s the third time they have staged Jonathan Tolins’ 2013 award-winning play, first on the Old Creamery Theatre’s former studio stage in Middle Amana in 2016, followed by a run at the Grinnell Community Theater.
It’s the story of an unemployed actor who discovers he isn’t selling out, he’s selling up when he accepts a most unusual job offer — minding the mall beneath a barn on Barbra Streisand’s Malibu estate. She will be his only customer, as she occasionally descends the stairs to visit her collections of dolls and vintage clothing, or to choose a gift for a dinner guest — or indulge in a bowl of frozen yogurt — sprinkled with conversations that grow over time.
It’s “a largely fictional story about a largely true thing,” Okiishi said. “Barbra Streisand, in a book she published about building her house in Malibu, describes how she displays her collection of goods and costumes in her basement in a mall. This place actually exists, and exists in her house, and so the playwright took that as a jumping off place to imagine what it would be like to work in that mall.”
Okiishi and Du Laney took it a step further, and brought the main character, Alex More, home to Iowa City to tell of his adventures in California.
“This is largely Chris’ idea,” Du Laney said. “We decided to treat the camera as though this were a friend of mine, and I’m going to tell you this really great story that happened to me. So the overwhelming majority for the camera work is as though we’re relating it to an old friend.”
“Which actually fits with script which breaks the fourth wall (by talking to the audience) from the beginning of the play,” Okiishi added.
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Their re-imagined video version, shot in 14 locations around Iowa City, is opening Riverside’s Virtual Stories Series. It was an easy sell, when they pitched it to Adam Knight, Riverside’s producing artist director.
“You’ve got two great artists who are telling the story,” said Knight, 41, of Iowa City. “They had a vision for this from the beginning, that it was going to be told in and around Iowa City,” including such sites as a coffee shop, FilmScene, a park and others.
“It’s places where these kinds of stories get told,” Knight said. “For me, it made a lot of sense, and it made the story very relatable. I imagined I was spending the day with Patrick.”
Video is “a different kind of medium,” Du Laney said, “and to take a show we both knew really, really well and make it work in this medium has its challenges and frustrations, but also rewards. There were certain things in the play that we were never able to quite pull off, that we were suddenly able to do with film, so we really liked that.”
Sharing camera and scouting duties gave them new experiences, as well.
“Neither of us had done a lot of film work, so we learned new skills, as is everyone in this fun, exciting time,” Du Laney said.
“We decided if we’re going to do it online, then we’re going to make it as interesting as we possibly can,” Okiishi said, hence all the different locations, including their home. “It actually ended up lending an extra dimension to the play.”
“We had a good time scouting locations trying to make things interesting but not too interesting,” Du Laney said. “For example, we have a lot of weird, interesting art in our house. You don’t want to be in a scene where you realize the audience is way more interested in looking at the painting that’s behind you, rather than you.”
The camera makes for a very different audience, too, Du Laney added.
“Because there is only one eye, essentially, and not an audience of them, you have to take the camera with you, as far as making sure that you’re communicating what you want — making sure you’re landing moments,” he said. “Usually you have an audience letting you know if you’re landing your moments. With this, you just have to hope for the best.”
The derecho added another challenge.
The duo began filming on Aug. 10, and endured five days without power, because of the storm that hit Eastern Iowa that day. (Du Laney said if you look closely, you can see some debris in the park setting.) They wrapped up filming Aug. 31, then turned it over to Rob Merritt of Cedar Rapids.
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“He’s “tweaking the sound, and making sure the colors all match and making it look super-pretty,” Okiishi said. “It’s all shot and edited and mastered.”
Knight has enjoyed the process, as well.
“This is a moment where we have to trust our artists and see what works,” Knight said. “ ... What’s so interesting about this process is that it was a process. We had design meetings, we had production concept meetings, so in some ways it was the same structure that works in theater already. The difference is that we never gathered in a room together.”
The project has been “just a joy to do,” Du Laney said. “It’s been three years since I’ve looked at (the script), so I had to look at the lines — rediscovering it, finding new things and some things I’d missed. That’s always fun. And we like to be of service and we love Riverside, so being able to be of use to them means a lot to both of us.”
“The central message of the play is that you can have the most beautiful things in the world, but what you’ve put in your life is ultimately the most important thing,” said Okiishi, who is a psychiatrist practicing in the Corridor. “I think that’s the lesson many of us are learning as we are sitting at home with our things, unable to distract ourselves with our friends and loved ones.
“That’s partly why this play is going to resonate in a different way than it did in the two previous (productions),” Okiishi added. “It’s a play that speaks to the importance of connection and consciously choosing who and what type of people are going to be in your life. It’s going to have a different feeling because of the way we’re thinking about connecting with community than we were pre-pandemic.”
“It was amazing to me to watch it and to feel the things I feel in a theater — to laugh and to feel uncomfortable in moments of embarrassed humor,” Knight said of the finished product. “I was worried those things wouldn’t translate. I was pleased it was the same experience I get watching a show.”
• What: Riverside Theatre’s Virtual Stories Series: “Buyer & Cellar,” starring Patrick Du Laney
• When: Viewing window opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, closes at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 20; paying audiences can watch any time in between
• Where: Online; ticket holders will be emailed the link by 5 p.m. Friday
• Cost: $15 adults, $10 students, free for Riverside members; Riversidetheatre.org/virtual
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• Series: Continues with “No Child,” Oct. 8 to 18; “Grounded,” Oct. 16 to 25; “Midnight Your Time,” Nov. 13 to 22
Comments: (319) 368-8508; firstname.lastname@example.org