With a population of less than 200, Republican City might be the last place you would expect to find live theater. Tucked into an area south of Holdrege with more cows and corn than people, the small town takes its name after the Republican River, which feeds into the Harlan County Reservoir. Hence the nickname of the theater: the Dam Playhouse.
On Sunday I called the theater, on a whim, and connected with board member Matt deFreese, who told me about the play that opens on Friday and continues for three weekends. "Dogsbreath Devereaux: The Dastardly Doctor" features a melodramatic plot, stereotypical characters and a chance for the audience to boo the villain and cheer for the hero. This old-fashioned melodrama, complete with popcorn for throwing, gives the audience an opportunity to join in the fun.
I first learned about the theater more than a decade ago when it was known as Theater of the American West. I drove to Republican City just to look around and see the performance space. Housed in a former school, the place felt funky and artistic and full of promise. After visiting, I wanted to quit all my jobs and devote my life to small-town theater.
Several years later, after the theater reorganized, I attended a melodrama and had great fun. You can read more about the play in an article in the Hub’s Bravo on Thursday, but I wanted to let readers know about the place ahead of time. When I asked Matt about the devotion it takes to run a smalltown theater, he defaulted by noting the complexity of my question. He just responded that he finds a lot of fun working as a volunteer in a small-town theater.
I get that.
There’s something wonderful about a group of people getting together to tell a story. And then suddenly someone suggests, "Hey, let’s put on a play." OK, it rarely happens like that. Theater takes a lot of planning and preparation — all in an effort to make it look effortless.
In a way, I’m afraid to go to the Dam Playhouse again because of the thought that this time I might just quit everything and give my life over to the stage. The pull of the lights and the costumes and the makeup is so strong for me. To be honest, I’ve spent most of my adult life fighting that urge.
For those stronger than me, I suggest you plan a road trip to see the melodrama on one of these weekends in June at the theater at 102 Berrigan Road in Republican City. Honestly, if you forget the address, don’t worry. Just look for all the theater types hanging out in that small town. All seats are $10 and you always can get tickets at the door, first come first served.
In a small-town-do-it-yourself mentality, the theater’s website offers a sound piece of advice for patrons wishing specific seats: "Please arrive early to get ahead of the line." If all aspects of our lives could be so easy.
For anyone who can’t make it to the melodrama this month, consider attending "Into the Woods" July 20-Aug. 1. The Harlan County Dam Playhouse also will honor 10 years of theater with a celebration on June 30 following the final production of "Dogsbreath Devereaux."
Theater offers a generous helping of magic when the stage lights come up. And small-town theater makes that magic even more special.
Rick Brown is a Hub staff writer.