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Season of change for Riverside Theatre in Iowa City
Professional troupe set to perform off-site this fall, then open new space in January
Riverside Theatre isn’t waiting for its new home to open before launching its 2021-22 season in Iowa City.
The professional troupe is scouting for locations for two shows this fall, before the January grand opening of the new space in the historic Crescent Block Building on the downtown Pedestrian Mall.
Adam Knight, Riverside Theatre’s producing artistic director, wanted to jump right in “and be part of the conversation” for the Iowa City Book Festival in October and the University of Iowa Libraries’ “Dostoevsky at 200” exhibit this fall.
So in October, the theater will be staging “The Grand Inquisitor,” adapted from “The Brothers Karamazov.” Riverside describes it as “Dostoyevsky’s chilling parable about life, religious faith and the stories that hold our society together.”
Riverside Theatre Season 2021-22
“The Grand Inquisitor,” October, location to come
“The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged,” November/December, location to come
“Eden Prairie, 1971,” world premiere, January/February, new Crescent Block site, 119 E. College St., Iowa City
“The Niceties,” March 4 to 20, Crescent Block site
“Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” April 22 to May 8, Crescent Block site
Details: Watch riversidetheatre.org/ for tickets, dates, sites and more programming
“ ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ has been a story that has inspired a lot of theater pieces,” Knight said. “It’s Laura Bush's favorite piece of literature, which I find completely fascinating.”
That also captured the attention of playwright Tony Kushner, known for his epic “Angels in America,” who put a theatrical spin on Bush’s interest in the story.
“It’s been referenced in a lot of other pieces,” Knight added, noting that the solo work Riverside is presenting grew from the New York Theatre Workshop about 12 years ago. “It's an adaptation with a very good pedigree,” he said.
Taking shows to found spaces was part of the plan for last year, before the pandemic caused Riverside and so many other area theaters to move to online formats.
Staging plays in non-traditional settings is the kind of theater Knight explored in New York City, so he’s eagerly scouting sites that could evoke the Spanish Inquisition for “The Grand Inquisitor.” He’s looking for a place close enough to encourage people also to take in the UI exhibition.
“For so many people, I think reading a book like ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ is so daunting, and to have something in front of you that dramatizes it brings it to life,” he said.
He’ll be looking for a historic home setting for “The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged,” coming in November and December. Written by three women, the show premiered in Philadelphia in 2019, and calls for three actors to play all of Austen’s heroines, friends and love interests — over the course of 80 fast-paced minutes.
“It felt like a great way to celebrate the holidays, and provide very unique theater,” Knight said, “finding the right historic home — or homes or spaces, which we have aplenty in Iowa City — and presenting it there for small groups.”
He’s envisioning audiences of 35 to 45 people per performance for both fall plays.
“I love that both of these plays have a literary bend to them,” he said, “and aligning ourselves with the UNESCO City of Literature and what that identity means for our community is fun.”
New theater home
Then in January comes the much-anticipated celebration of Riverside Theatre’s new home at 119 E. College St., in the heart of Iowa City’s downtown entertainment and dining scene.
“It’s really exciting,” Knight said. “Honestly, the season changed about two weeks ago.”
He and his colleagues had been mulling over options for the right show to open the new space.
Managing Director Irena Saric suggested staying true to Riverside’s identity and opening with a world premiere.
“We’re the only theater in Iowa that’s a member of the National New Play Network — we’re a core member of that institution,” Knight said. “World premieres have been part of Riverside’s history since the beginning.
“And what a great way to open a new theater. It’s a theater space that no one has ever seen before, and a play that no one has ever seen before.”
“Eden Prairie, 1971,” will have its world premiere in January and February. It’s by Knight’s frequent collaborator, Mat Smart, who wrote “The Agitators,” performed on Riverside’s former Gilbert Street Stage in early 2020.
This new work begins on the night Apollo 15 lands on the moon. The Vietnam War is raging, and a draft dodger sneaks home to Eden Prairie, Minn., from Canada, risking arrest to deliver a message to a young woman from his high school class. The play is designed to “challenge notions of our own bravery and the true cost of freedom.”
“I think it’s a play that’s really going to resonate with our community,” Knight said. "In Iowa City, like everywhere, there were passionate feelings about the Vietnam War, and there continue to be passionate feelings about a citizen’s role when they don't agree with what a country’s doing.
“On a certain level, it’s about that, but on another level, it’s about innocence and what it means to grow up. Both of the main characters are 19 years old, and there's a hope and a passion. As we get older, we lose that and it gets jaded. I love that that hope and passion for change is going to be something that we open our season with.”
Next up is with “The Niceties,” from March 4 to 20. “Academia is the new battlefront” in this play by Eleanor Burgess, in which “Zoe, a Black student at a liberal arts college, is called into her white professor’s office to discuss her paper about slavery’s effect on the American Revolution. What begins as a polite clash in perspectives explodes into an urgent debate about race, history and power.”
The season closes with “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” the first musical Riverside has done in a long time. It will run April 22 with May 8, and is the Iowa premiere of this Broadway “electropop opera” based on “a scandalous slice” of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”
In Riverside’s description, “Young and impulsive, Natasha Rostova arrives in Moscow to await the return of her fiance from the front lines. When she falls under the spell of the roguish Anatole, it is up to Pierre, a family friend in the middle of an existential crisis, to pick up the pieces of her shattered reputation.”
Knight is excited to bring a cast of 11 actors, plus instrumentalists, onto the new stage, to showcase the new site’s capabilities and flexibilities.
But that’s not all. The building also offers more spaces for a cabaret series, Opera on Tap, new play readings and other events to come.
Riverside also will be adopting a membership model, where those who choose to be members will be afforded discounts to all events, and can choose whatever they’d like to see.
“It’s an ability to provide flexibility,” Knight said, “but it’s also saying, you don't have to love everything that we do, but we hope that if you love one thing, it’ll pique your curiosity and (you’ll) want to see more.”
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