Circa director is a theatrical triple threat

Posted Online: July 23, 2014, 11:26 am
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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com
Theatrical powerhouse Jim Hesselman seemingly can do it all — act, direct and write — and he does a lot of his directing at Rock Island's Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse.

The friendly, modest 54-year-old Milwaukee native is presenting his first original straight play, "Love, Lies and the Lottery," which is his 24th production for Circa over a span of 20 years. His directing credits in recent years include "Legally Blonde," "Hairspray," "Peter Pan," "Squabbles," "Dixie Swim Club," and the recent 50th-anniversary run of the classic "Fiddler on the Roof."

"I really get a little upset if directors get typecast," Mr. Hesselman said of directing musicals versus plays. "They're all different animals. It takes a little different skill level on some things. This show we're rehearsing now is much harder than 'Fiddler.' "

His new play is a madcap homage to classic farces. "It's less cast, it's all dialogue and the timing," he said. "To try to get comedy believable, but ridiculous, is hard. I wrote this for people to laugh. There's no other alternative than to get people to laugh."

Mr. Hesselman — who also is an assistant professor of theatre/performance at Indiana University Southeast — said being a director has helped him writing for theater.

"You can write anything down, but is it practical? You can't write things that are impossible to happen," he said. "It helps just being a theater person — you have to know every aspect of theater."

Writing his first non-musical, especially a fast-moving farce, was a challenge — one Mr. Hesselman began 12 years ago, after reading about an unclaimed winning lottery ticket. Like other farces he's acted in and directed, his own includes misinformation, mistaken identity and six doors (that often are slammed).

"I love them. They're no less difficult and no less plotted out than a good mystery," he said of farces, pointing to British author Ray Cooney (who's now 82) as the pinnacle, especially his "Run For Your Wife" (1983).

"I love directing those things, and being in them, in that the audience was just there to laugh," Mr. Hesselman said. "If you're there to laugh that hard, you're gonna leave here changed."

He also cited the best of "I Love Lucy" as a classic example of the form, noting an episode of Lucy going to the hospital. "It's so believable, that you can laugh at it 70 years after it was done," Mr. Hesselman said. "That to me makes something hold up. It's not about topical things in the news, about teasing the president. It's about human things."

In "Love, Lies and the Lottery," audiences should be able to relate to the relationship of an 82-year-old mother (with a new boyfriend), and her son, and a winning lottery ticket he bought a year ago, but had not claimed its $500 million prize. An ex-wife, a psychic and cross-dressing all add to the hijinks.

Mr. Hesselman pays tribute to the quirks of his home state in its fictional small town in Wisconsin. He originally considered titling the play "Taxidermy and Cheese," and later, "Where There's a Will, There's a Wife."

Mr. Ciemiewicz (who just wrapped a grueling two-month run as Tevye in "Fiddler") is glad to be rid of his bushy beard (grown just for that part), the director said. They also just had four days of rehearsal -- starting July 14 -- before a technical run-through of the world premiere show, but it's helped knowing him so well and having that built-in trust, Mr. Hesselman said.

The comedy is harder than the big musical "Fiddler" because it's just seven actors and they have more responsibility for the whole show, he said.

Joining Mr. Ciemiewicz are two of his "Fiddler" co-stars: fellow Bootlegger Brad Hauskins, who has also appeared in Circa productions including "Southern Crossroads" and "Empty Nest," and James Fairchild, of the venue's "The Full Monty" and "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story." Rounding out the cast are returning performers Tristan Tapscott ("Legally Blonde"), Janet Brucken ("Always a Bridesmaid"), and Tamarin K. Ythier ("Always a Bridesmaid"), and debuting Circa performer Erin Clark (of the neighboring District Theatre's "Hair," "Rent" and "The Rocky Horror Show.")

Mr. Hesselman -- who also is directing the Bootleggers' show in August; the last one he did was a Kander & Ebb revue in 2012 -- said much of a director's success is based on good casting and how you communicate with each person.

Mr. Hesselman has acted in, written and/or directed more than 150 productions at Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville, Indiana (across the Ohio River from Louisville) and runs his own production company, Theatre Island Productions. He has performed all over the country, including almost two years on the road playing Billy Crocker opposite "Days Of Our Lives" diva Gloria Loring on the national tour of "Anything Goes."

He has been producing artistic director of both the Shawnee Summer Theatre and Music Theatre Louisville and has written 14 children's musicals, a gospel musical called "Celebrate," and co-written the gospel musical comedies "Peace In The Valley" and "Sing Hallelujah!," which broke box office records at Derby Dinner Playhouse and has been done at Circa '21.

As an actor, Mr. Hesselman toured in the 20th anniversary of the original "Nunsense" starring Kaye Ballard, Lee Meriwether, Georgia Engel, Mimi Hines and Darlene Love. He directed Circa actor and Bootlegger Marc Ciemiewicz (the lead in both "Fiddler" and "Love, Lies") in 2011's "Nuncrackers" at the Rock Island theater.

Directing and writing are like making and raising a child, he said. "You're letting it grow and letting them go. It's exactly comparable," Mr. Hesselman said. As if he's not busy enough, he's working on writing another play, which is more sentimental.

If you go

What: "Love, Lies and the Lottery."
When: Friday through Sept. 6 (plus preview tonight at 7:45 p.m.); Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 7:45 p.m., Sunday at 5:45 p.m., and Wednesday matinees at 1:30 p.m.
Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
Tickets: $49.12 for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $43.37 for the plated-lunch matinees, available at the Circa '21 ticket office, 309-786-7733, ext. 2, or at circa21.com.

NOTE: Bring in your losing lottery ticket for a chance to be a winner. Circa '21 will draw one losing lottery ticket at each performance for a chance to win one dinner and ticket to the next show -- "Funny, You Don't Look Like a Grandmother."


Local events heading

  Today is Monday, Sept. 22, the 265th day of 2014. There are 100 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: The board of education has granted Thursday as a holiday for the children, with the expectation that parents who desire to have their children attend the Scott County Fair will do so on that day and save irregularity the rest of the week.
1889 -- 125 years ago: The guard fence around the new cement walk at the Harper House has been removed. The blocks are diamond shape, alternating in black and white.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The Rev. R.B. Williams, former pastor of the First Methodist Church, Rock Island, was named superintendent of the Rock Island District.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Abnormally high temperatures and lack of rainfall in Illinois during the past week have speeded maturing of corn and soybean crops.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Installation of a new television system in St. Anthony's Hospital, which includes a closed circuit channel as well as the three regular Quad-Cities channels, has been completed and now is in operation.
1989 -- 25 years ago: When the new Moline High School was built in 1958, along with it were plans to construct a football field in the bowl near 34th Street on the campus. Wednesday afternoon, more than 30 years later, the Moline Board of Education Athletic Board sent the ball rolling toward the possible construction of that field by asking superintendent Richard Hennigan to take to the board of education a proposal to hire a consultant.

(More History)