Review: 'Still Life with Iris' teaches value of past

In "Still Life with Iris," Kansas University Theatre for Young People's fall production, the title character possesses a magical ability many people would covet: She can remove her "Past Coat" and forget everything that has ever happened to her.

But the lesson wrapped up in this hourlong, delightfully imaginative children's play, written by Steven Dietz and directed by Jeanne Klein, is that a life lived without the richness of our pasts -- the good and bad parts -- is altogether dull and empty.

Iris, portrayed tenderly by Erika Crane, learns this lesson through no choice of her own. She's living happily with her mother in Nocturno, a land whose inhabitants spend every night creating all the things that will be seen in the world the next day. The only source of sadness for Iris, whose job is to lift the fog each morning, is that her father left when she was young and she longs for his return.

But her world is disrupted when the Great Goods, rulers of the Land of Nocturno, decide they want Iris for themselves. They send Mister Matternot (Marland Chang) to retrieve Iris, with strict orders to remove her and her mother's Past Coats so the transition will not be painful.

A button that falls off the coat remains Iris' lone hazy link to the past. Whenever she rubs it, she sees a single still-life image of an iris in a vase, sitting on her family's dining-room table.

In the meantime, she's whisked away to Great Island, where Grotto and Gretta Good (Jon Matteson and Lauren Arnold) await her. Matteson and Arnold are hilariously flamboyant as the narcissistic Great Goods, who surround themselves with only the best of everything, literally: one chair, one glass, one shoe each to complement outfits with only one sleeve. They even have a mounted deer head with just one horn.

Iris becomes their one perfect daughter, but the button from her Past Coat sustains her curiosity enough to make her unhappy in her new surroundings, where she quickly becomes bored and longs to know more about herself.

She meets Annabel Lee (Wendy Fossum) and an 11-year-old Mozart (Dale Buchheister), who vow to help her retrieve her Past Coat. In their search, they uncover a not-so-great secret that the Great Goods have been keeping.

Buchheister, both in his role as the Flower Painter and as Mozart, gives standout performances steeped with energy.

Sandy Appleoff's set playfully defines the fantastical Land of Nocturno and the absurd Great Room on Great Island. Fabulous costumes by 1992 KU graduate Brandt Huseby -- from colorful patchwork Past Coats to ridiculously regal Great Goods garb -- play a strong supporting role in the production.

And lighting by Nicholas Mosher helps reinforce Iris' moods, in turn content, sad, angry and, finally, very happy.

The show, which is being staged in Crafton-Preyer Theatre as part of Theatre for Young People's 50th anniversary, will be performed for area school children Monday and Tuesday.

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