LIVING IN THE KEY OF “B” UNNATURAL: Where Friendship, Faith & Fantasy Collide

LIVING IN THE KEY OF “B” UNNATURAL: At the Intersection of Friendship, Faith & Fantasy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Hickory Hill Community Center, 3000 E. Belt Boulevard, Richmond, VA 23234

Performances: September 19 @ 12:30PM; September 21, 21, 22 @ 8:00PM & September 22 @ 4:00PM

Ticket Prices: $10 for Groups of 10 or more; $12 for Students and Seniors; $15 General Admission

Info: thetheatreubuntu@gmail.com; http://theheritageensemble.wixsite.com/thetc

 

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how the poetically titled Living in the Key of “B” Unnatural managed to move me as deeply as it did. Written by Jerry Maple, Jr., who was also the author of last’s year’s The Dream Seller and the Forest Dwellers, a children’s play produced by Heritage Ensemble, Living in the Key of “B” Unnatural is described as “a light-hearted serio-comedy.” I would describe it more as an intersection or perhaps a collision of friendship, faith, and fantasy.

 

Running one hour and twenty minutes with no intermission (but with an inexplicably long pause that obviously did not involve a change of costume or scenery), the play takes place in the single room residence of Dr. Enola VanderHorn-Bernard (Crystal Wiley-Perry). The plot revolves around Enola, a Harvard educated M.D. who one day walked away from her medical practice, her husband, and two daughters. The words depression or mental illness are never mentioned, although Enola’s friends are not exempt from calling her “crazy,” but this is clearly a case of at least clinical depression, and possibly something more. And that is why it requires a tremendous suspension of belief to accept that Enola suddenly snaps out of it.

 

Enola is a brilliant woman with a heart for people, a dislike of privilege, and an unfulfilled desire to be a missionary. Describing her past life with her husband, also a prominent physician, she says that he was “lost in prominence.” Enola’s best friends are now Shummay St. Catherine, a Guyanese short-order cook at a downtown diner (played by Haliya Robert with a flawless accent that impressed even a Guyanese audience member), and her landlord Manfred Monroe (played by Isaiah Entzminger). Enola has “rented” a room in Manfred’s Harlem brownstone for twenty years, but Manfred, who describes himself as stingy, has allowed her to go months, if not years, without paying the rent, which becomes something of an ongoing joke. More concerning, Enola has not seen her family for twenty years, and has not looked in a mirror for nineteen of those years.

 

A fourth character, Dr. Latooza Wellington (Whitney Tymas), was Enola’s Harvard classmate, and suddenly reappears in her life after more than twenty years. Latooza plays a key role in Enola’s final scene breakthrough, and there is a distinct difference in the interactions between Enola and Latooza and those between Enola and all the other characters, but to tell more would spoil the surprise. Toney Q. Cobb has directed with a keen eye for detail, humor, and the storyteller’s pace that is a trademark of this company and its artistic director, Margarette Joyner.  That storyteller’s pace sometimes drags a bit, especially as there is no intermission. I’m not sure if it that was an artistic or directorial choice or a requirement of the author. If given an opportunity, I would ask Maple about that as well as about the characters’ names – unusual even for a group of African Americans.

 

The multi-talented Joyner designed the set (a cluttered, tiny room at the top floor of a brownstone), Pamela Archer-Shaw designed the sound (which included appropriate popular mood music, including “Beautiful,” which I believe is a popular Christina Aguilera song at a key moment in Enola’s evolution), and LaWanda Raines did the costumes (a task made somewhat easier by the lead character’s refusal to change clothes until the final scene).

 

There is much about this production that some might dismiss as unbelievable, unpolished, or just generally flawed. Why, for instance, is such a big deal made of Enola changing from shoes to house slippers each time she enters her room? Could Enola’s frequent long monologues with herself have been handled differently? But then, there is something magical that happens in that intersection between friendship, faith, and fantasy that I mentioned above, something that inexplicably tugs at the heart and perhaps even dampens the eyes. And that is enough for me to recommend that you see this touching and unusual play and its earnest ensemble during its short run of just four days (the original opening was postponed due to last week’s impending hurricane warnings), ending with two shows on Saturday, September 22, one at 4PM and another at 8PM.

 

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Photos Courtesy of Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company

Key of B Unnatural

Key of B
Crystal Wiley-Perry, Isaiah Entzminger, and Haliya Roberts
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BOEING BOEING: CAT’s 55th Season Opens with a French Farce

BOEING BOEING: Who’s Behind Door Number 2?

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: CAT Theatre, 419 No. Wilkinson Rd., RVA 23227

Performances: September 7-22, 2018

Ticket Prices: $23 Adults; $18 RVATA Members; $13 Students

Info: (804) 804-262-9760 or cat@cattheatre.com

 

  • Desperate times call for laughter. This was my second night in a row attending a comedy (see my discussion of Invalid at The Firehouse Theatre, September 6, 2018).
  • In addition, after 54 years of producing theater in Richmond, CAT Theatre announced barely a month ago that they would be going dark after this show. They had not been being able to secure a lease for the space they’ve been renting long-term. Just hours before the opening night curtain of what would have been their final show, it was announced that the matter has been resolved. The company will be staying at the No. Wilkinson Road space they rent from the Northern Henrico Civic Association for the remainder of this season and possibly into the future. In a press release from the Virginia Repertory Theatre, CAT Board President Kelly St. Clair stated, in part, “We have every expectation that this will be a long term fix to our short term challenges,” and added, “Plans call for CAT’s productions to continue in place for many years to come.”

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Boeing Boeing is a 1960 French farce, written by Marc Camoletti and translated into English by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans. I first (and last) saw it at Hanover Tavern in 2011. A fast-paced romp that depends on physical comedy, slamming doors, and perfect timing, the three-act play drew barrels of laughter from the opening night audience, but dragged noticeably during the third act, which comes after the intermission.

 

The plot revolves around Bernard (Brent Deekins), a Paris-based American architect who spends most of his time juggling his three fiancées. Yes, three. Each is an airline hostess with a different airline. Gloria (Rylee Daniels) is American, Gabriella (Marcia Cunning) is Italian, and Gretchen (Paige Reisenfeld) is German. Each is distinguished by the color of her airline uniform, red, blue, or yellow. Bernard has a French maid, Berthe (Sara Sommers) who spends more time bemoaning her fate as a servant and her role in helping Bernard keep his airline schedules straight than actually cooking and cleaning. Berthe changes the sofa cushions to match the uniform of each fiancée. The cast is rounded out by Bernard’s old school friend Robert (Travis Williams) who drops by for an unexpected visit just hours before the airlines change their schedules resulting in the obligatory comedy of errors.

 

Pat Walker’s bright and serviceable set included seven doors, most of which were thrust open and slammed with regularity during the two and one half hours or so running time, but there were few clues to indicate that this was set in Paris, or near Orly airport, or in the 1960s. It did seem odd that the front door opened into the hallway, as outer doors traditionally open into the house or apartment. Another oddity is that, at the end, Travis Williams took the stage last for the final bow, rather than Brent Deekins, suggesting that Robert was the star rather than Bernard. Hmm.

 

There’s a lot of shouting and loud cross talking, which makes it unlikely that anyone in one room would not have heard what was going on in the other rooms – but the nature of a farce often requires the audience to willingly relinquish any remaining remnant of reality. I thought Reisenfeld had the best handle on her character, striking a good balance between physical comedy, emotional swings, and comedic timing. Cunning’s character was, ironically a bit too trusting, but Daniels’ character was too cold and calculating, and while that artistic decision suited the final scene, it made her less likeable overall. I thoroughly enjoyed Sommer’s portrayal of the salty maid, but I found the men’s characters were painted broad and flat, making them appear to be flat and cartoonish. The result was that their loud outbursts of laughter and increasingly ineffectual attempts at subterfuge seemed more forced than farce. Glenn Abernathy, who directed, is a recent graduate of Christopher Newport University’s theater department, and this is his first time directing in the Richmond community.

 

There is much to enjoy about Boeing Boeing, and when I did laugh – which was frequently – I was laughing with the characters as well as at their antics, but things speed towards an inevitable conclusion that is not what one would expect. As in real life, people often don’t get what they deserve. Go, enjoy, be entertained. There really isn’t anything deep or serious hiding here.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Jeremy Bustin Photography

Boeing-4
Paige Reisenfeld and Travis Williams. Brent Deekins and Marcia Cunning.
Boeing-3
Sara ommer and Paige Reisenfeld
Boeing-2
Travis Williams and Sara Sommers
Boeing-1
Brent Deekins and Travis Williams

INVALID: When What Ails You Hits the Fan

INVALID: Modern Adaptation of a Classic Comedy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: August 30 – September 29, 2018, Thu-Sat @ 7:30pm; Sun @ 4:00pm [check the website for specific dates as the days vary each week]

Ticket Prices: $15 – $35;

Info: (804) 355-2001 or info@firehousetheatre.org

 

If silliness and slapstick are your schtick, Josh Chenard and Jane Mattingly’s modern adaptation of Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid (aka The Hypochondriac) is right up your alley. If not, the Firehouse production of Invalid is still worth seeing, for a number of reasons.

First, there is Chris Raintree’s set. Simple, yet elegant, the tiled floor and single wall remind you of those perspective rooms in the children’s museums – you know, the ones that make you look very tall or very short, depending on which side you stand. The set also includes a quartet of beautiful metal chairs – ornate barstools, really – for which Blair Rath is given a credit in the program as “chair fabricator.” They really don’t have anything to do with either the 19th century in which the play is set, the 17th century, in which the original version premiered, or today, but they are quite lovely, if a bit uncomfortable without the addition some plush cushions.

The pre-show curtain talk includes some discussion about the pronunciation of the title, whether it should be IN-va-led (i.e., unwell) or in-VAL-ed (i.e., null and void). It is, of course, open to interpretation. The main character, Argan (Andrew Firda), is, after all, a hypochondriac, but the modern references to universal healthcare and politics – there’s even a reference to the Artsies nominations – make the second definition just as, well, valid. And, to get the audience warmed up, everyone passes through a team of medical professionals on the way to their seats and gets treated to a taste of “laugh yoga” by Slash Coleman. Don’t forget to fill your prescription at the bar and get your bill on the way out! Yes, there is a lot going on here.

Moliere’s three-act farce has been adapted as a two-act comedy, with many modern references, but it retains most of the original characters and plot.  Argan, a wealthy hypochondriac, plots to marry his daughter Angelica (played with delightful gusto by Allison Paige Gilman) to Thomas Diaforus (Kenneth W. Putnam), the inept son of his physician, Dr. Diaforus (Christopher Dunn). But Angelica is in love with Cleante (Jamar Jones) and enlists the help of her father’s sassy maid, Toinette (Donna Marie Miller) to thwart her father’s plans as well as protect her inheritance from her scheming stepmother, Beline (played by Kirk Morton in elegant drag). And if no one else has mentioned it, I will: the hesitation over the unannounced appearance of Cleante took on a whole new dimension given that Jones is, shall we say, “not white.”

There ensues a comedy of error with much slamming of doors (even though there are only two actual doors) and people hiding in plain sight or behind silly masks that disguise nothing.

It’s all done in good fun, and rhyming couplets. The play retains a deliberately inserted unnecessary musical number, a hilariously bad operetta, countless fart jokes, a messy enema scene that requires the assistance of a stagehand and some plastic ponchos (I thought I could actually smell the. . .never mind), and the voice of Mel Brooks as God. And yes, Brooks gets a credit in the program, too. (This is a program that deserves to be read.)

Miller is delightfully over the top as Toinette. I enjoyed Firda as Argan and Gilman as his daughter, Angelica. Dunn brought a slightly sinister edge to Dr. Diaforus, and Putnam was hilarious as Thomas (with the accent on the second syllable), providing the best physical comedy of the evening. Morton’s portrayal of Beline was divine, and Jones’s constant correction of everyone’s mispronunciation of his name may or may not have been a sly reference to the difficulty many people have with some “black sounding” names. Hmm. Race. Gender. Politics. Class. Misogyny. Did anyone or any issue get overlooked?

There’s a lot going on, and the laughs flowed steadily throughout the evening – which runs just under two hours, including an intermission. Chenard’s well-paced direction reflects not just an eye and an ear, but a heart for comedy. But for all the effort and effects and interaction, at the end, I felt maybe they tried too hard, maybe there was a bit too much hype, maybe they raised our expectations too high. It was a delightful evening, but I somehow expected just a little more.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

 

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CRIMES OF THE HEART: A Southern Sister Reunion

CRIMES OF THE HEART: Tales of Southern Sisterhood

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

VirginiaRep

At: Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover, VA 23069

Performances: July 20 – August 26, 2018

Ticket Prices: $42

Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org

The final show of the 2017-2018 season,  Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning three-act southern tragicomedy, boasts outstanding performances by three highly individual women and a beautifully designed and detailed set created by Terrie Powers. It also has near flawless direction by Steve Perigard (who also directed Da and Brighton Beach for this same stage – “near flawless” because, with three acts, it does seem to get lulled into a light sleepy southern languor about halfway through.

There was a time when I would, if given a chance, watch daytime talk shows because the dysfunctional guests made me feel so much better about my own life. To some extent, the quirky Magrath sisters make me feel the same way about my own family. Irene Kuykendall deftly navigates the surprising complexities of Meg, the black sheep of the family, gradually revealing that she is not a complete narcissist, but has hopes and dashed dreams, and holds a deep and abiding love with her two sisters. She’s also the middle child.

Lexi Langs, who last appeared in a VaRep performance ins 2007, is fascinating as the youngest sister, Babe or Rebecca. Physically enchanting with her wide eyes and sometimes vacant stare, we first meet Babe when she returns to Old Grandad’s home after being released from jail where she spent the night after shooting her husband in the stomach. Langs gives Babe a childlike quality that is unnerving; we are never quite sure if Babe has a true mental illness or just an advanced case of “the vapors.”

But the true star of this ensemble is Maggie Roop who shoulders the burdens of the family upon the sloping shoulders of Lenny, the eldest of the three sisters. There’s usually one in every family – the one who takes care of everyone and everything, but no one ever thinks she needs taking care of.  Roop spends much of the play trying to keep the peace; there are dark circles under her eyes, and she is obsessed with cleaning, which is, perhaps, the only thing over which she has any control. Roop brings unforced depth to the character of Lenny. For most of the three acts, I wanted to give Lenny a hug, so it was doubly rewarding when, in the third act, she took a broom to the butt of her obnoxious, social climbing first cousin, Chick (Maggie Bavolack). Whiny and annoying, Chick opens the first scene with a hilarious and unexpected reverse strip-tease, in which she elaborately squeezes into a pair of “petite” pantyhose.

Crimes of the Heart tackles real-life trauma: suicide; the illness of an aging grandparent; spousal abuse; dishonest politicians; social pressure; regret; vendetta; attempted murder; low self-esteem. Set in the small town of Hazlehurst, Mississippi (a real town about 30 miles south of the state capital of Jackson) five years after Hurricane Camille (which blew through in August of 1969), there are subtle references to the racial politics of the day, but more disturbingly, because of the racial politics of the times, a major issue of statutory rape is swept under the table, so to speak.

The overall outstanding ensemble is focused on the relationships between the women, but there are also credible performances by Arik Cullen as Meg’s former love interest, Doc Porter, and Tyler Stevens as the young lawyer, Barnette Lloyd.

There are thought-provoking lines, like, “She works out in the garden wearing the lime green gloves of a dead woman” physical humor, as when Babe prepares a glass of lemonade for Meg that makes Meg’s face – not just her lips, but her entire face – pucker, but adds so much sugar to her own glass that we can almost hear it crunch when she sips it. But despite – or maybe because of – our better judgment, Crimes of the Heart makes us laugh at such taboo topics as attempted murder and an old man falling into a coma. Babe may have shot her husband, but each sister has to face up to her own “crimes of the heart.”

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutton

Crimes of the Heart
Lexi Langs, Maggie Roop, and Irene Kuykendall
Crimes of the Heart
Lexi Langs, Maggie Roop, Irene Kuykendall. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Crimes of the Heart
Maggie Roop, Lexi Langs, and Irene Kuykendall
Crimes of the Heart
Lexi Langs, Maggie Roop, Maggie Bavolack. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Crimes of the Heart
Maggie Roop, Maggie Bavolack, Irene Kuykendall. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

TOMFOOLERY: Swift Creek Shenanigans

TOMFOOLERY: A Politically Incorrect Musical Satire

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, Colonial Heights, VA 23834

Performances: July 14 – August 18, 2018

Ticket Prices: $38 Theater only; $55 Dinner & Theater

Info: (804) 748-5203 or swiftcreekmill.com

 

Swift Creek Mill Theatre’s final show of the 2017-2018 season, Tom Lehrer’s Tomfoolery, features four cast members, 28 musical numbers, a five-piece orchestra, and a sense that anything goes. The satirical musical revue, whose title has nothing to do with Swift Creek Mill Theatre’s artistic director Tom Width, has no plot. Rather, it allows Width to share with the Mill audience his own love of the silly, satirical, politically incorrect songs written and performed by Lehrer between 1953 and 1965 – and even one he wrote for the PBS children’s show, The Electric Company, popular in the 1970s. Surprisingly, other than the era-specific references, such as the names of political candidates and talk of bombs and drills to prepare for nuclear war, much of the humor remains relevant, while the music (book, music, and lyrics are all by Lehrer, adapted by Cameron MacKintosh and Robin Ray) seems more attuned to the ears of those whose college years were marked by folk songs and protest marches.

Width keeps things moving, with a simple, colorful set with the musicians settled upstage right and a small bar set up stage left where the actors congregate while waiting their turn. Maura Lynch Cravey has Richard Koch in a vested suit that is vaguely vaudevillian, while Bryan Harris and PJ Llewellyn are dressed less distinctively, and, but for one outstanding exception, Debra Wagoner’s wardrobe seems to be mostly an afterthought. Robes, suspenders, hats, canes, stools, and other props provide visual interest and cues, and the actors use their own names throughout the revue, which runs under two hours, including one fifteen-minute intermission.

Tomfoolery opens with “Be Prepared,” an homage to the Boy Scout oath, and closes with “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” an irreverent post-apocalyptic sendup. In between, no topic is off-limits. “Bright College Days” (Richard and Bryan) contains my favorite lyric of the evening: “Soon we’ll be sliding down the razor blade of life.” Bryan sings my favorite song, “Elements,” which sets the periodic table of the elements to the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan (to the theme of a song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance). “The Hunting Song” tells of bagging “two game wardens, seven hunters, and a cow,” while “Smut” is an ode to pornography.

There’s a song dedicated to Wernher Von Braun, a German engineer and rocket scientist who was a member of the Nazi party and an SS officer before coming to the US to work for NASA while “Who’s Next” speculates on which nation will be next to get a bomb. And just in case you haven’t been offended by the end of the first act, “National Brotherhood Week” reminds you of who hates you and who you should hate in return.

Oh, and the one time Debra Wagoner was dressed in a glitzy glamourous dress with a blinged out feather boa was for “Oedipus Rex,” her second act homage to incest which allowed her to belt out a song full-out as only she can and make you wish you could sing like that, too.

Great theater? By no means. An entertaining evening with good music that is beautifully played under the direction of Paul Deiss (who even gets to sing one number, “The Old Dope Peddler”)? Absolutely. And don’t forget to get your Swift Creek Mill “sippy cup” so you can take your preferred beverage – hot, cold, or alcoholic – into the theater (new this season).

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Robyn O’Neill

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KNUFFLE BUNNY: Musical Theater for the Whole Family

KNUFFLE BUNNY: A Cautionary Musical

A Family Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis, with input by Emmitt, Kingston, and Soleil

At: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn; 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, Richmond, Virginia 23230

Performances: July 13 – August 12, 2018

Ticket Prices: Start at $18

Info: (804) 282-2620 or virginiarep.org

Knuffle Bunny is a hilarious family-friendly musical that held the attention of even the youngest audience members. With a running time of just under 45 minutes, and no intermission, I thought it might be worth a test run with my youngest grandson, Emmitt, who just turned 4.

Emmitt sat attentively for the entire show, sometimes singing along, eyes big as saucers, feet swinging happily. He was the first in our party of four to predict that the “rat with wings” would be making a comeback – an event which would open up the possibility for a sequel. His final pronouncement, “Awesome!”

Knuffle Bunny – much to my surprise, the “k” is pronounced – is based on the book of the same name by Mo Willems, who also wrote the script and lyrics. The music is by Michael Silversher. Upbeat and colorful, with a simple, uncluttered set designed by Emily Hake Massie and lighting by BJ Wilkinson, Knuffle Bunny is a cautionary tale about the adventure that ensues when pre-verbal toddler Trixie, played by Christina Ramsey, leaves her beloved stuffed bunny at the laundromat. Her poor dad (David Janosik) is cast as the somewhat incompetent rube by his beloved wife (Louise Ricks) who from the beginning doubts his ability to successfully take a basket of laundry to the laundromat with Trixie in tow. Hilarity ensues.

There is a chorus kick line, some striking air guitar play, animated puppetry of gigantic pieces of laundry (a necktie a onesie, a brassiere, and a man’s shirt), and a local geography lesson as the ensemble (Brandon James Johns and Corinne MacLean) runs across the stage holding signs reading Broad Street, Boulevard, and Cary Street as the little family makes their way from their house to the laundromat.

There is plenty for the adults to enjoy, as well. Trixie’s sad ballad to her beloved Knuffle Bunny has the ensemble holding up their lighters, as is customary at concerts – a feature that may be over the heads of the littlest audience members but did not go unnoticed by the adults.  (I couldn’t resist – here’s a link to an article on the practice of holding up lighters at concerts: https://beat.media/history-of-the-lighter-at-concerts)

My adult daughter, Soleil, could hardly contain her composure as Trixie’s big number was set up – the dramatic lighting, the mood music, all to accompany a heart-wrenching song made up entirely of nonsense syllables, “Aggle Flaggle Klabble.”  When asked by the cast members during the post-show meet and greet what he thought of the show, my seasoned assistant Kingston (older brother to Emmitt) responded that he enjoyed the songs and wanted more like “Aggle Flaggle Klabble.” I know that Willems wrote lyrics, but I wonder if the “words” to “Aggle Flaggle Klabble” come out the same each time – and if they didn’t, would anyone notice?

Susan Sanford directed this delightful musical – which really caters to the youngest of audiences without boring older siblings or the adults who accompany them. Go. Enjoy. And don’t forget to take a young person or two. Copies of the book Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale are available for purchase at the bar.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

Knuffle Bunny
Christina Ramsey and Louise Ricks
Knuffle Bunny
David Janosik, Christina Ramsey, Knuffle Bunny, and Louise Ricks
Knuffle Bunny
Louise Ricks, Christina Ramsey, Knuffle Bunny, and David Janosik
Knuffle Bunny
Knuffle Bunny, Christina Ramsey, and David Janosik

HAND TO GOD: The Invention of the Devil

HAND TO GOD: The Devil Made Me Do It

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

A co-production of  TheatreLAB and 5th Wall Theatre

At: TheatreLab, The Basement, 300 E. Broad St, RVA 23219

Performances: July 13-28, 2018

Ticket Prices: $15

Info: (804) 359-2003 or 5thwalltheatre.org

 

Weird – in a very creepy way – and funny – in a very irreverent way – Robert Askin’s Hand to God is probably the most unsettling study in family dysfunction I’ve yet so see on a stage. A co-production of TheatreLAB and 5th Wall Theatre directed by Gary C. Hopper, Hand to God features a remarkable performance by Adam Turck and a commendable performance by Kimberly Jones Clark – who will not soon be nominated for mother of the year.

The recently widowed Margery (Jones Clark) and her teen-aged son Jason (Turck) have not fared well in the six months or so since Margery’s husband died of a heart attack. Margery has been depending on her son for support and Jason seems to alternate between blaming his mother for his father’s death and blaming his father for abandoning the family. Their kind-hearted Pastor Greg (Fred Iacovo) – who apparently skipped the seminary coursework in grief counseling – has ill-advisedly placed Margery in charge of the church’s puppet ministry, hoping to fill her idle time and distract her from her grief.  Iacovo initially comes off as mild-mannered as Mr. Rogers, but in the second act he boldly and surprisingly confronts the evil Tyrone. I guess this is where I should mention that Tyrone is Jason’s puppet.

Hand to God is set in a church basement in a small town somewhere in Texas. On entering The Basement, many of  us will take one look at David P. Melton’s set design and immediately have flash backs to Vacation Bible School, otherwise known simple as VBS. There are the inspirational posters, the pictures partially colored by children, and the ubiquitous puppet stage.

In spite of the popularity of the puppet ministry in many churches, many children are terrified of puppets. My own son, in his youth, would scream at the sight of clowns, masks, mimes, and puppets. But Tyrone takes it to a whole new level. Tyrone actually opens and closes the show with his own prologue and epilogue, and in Acts 1 and 2 he demonically possesses young Jason. We’re talking bloody mutilations and violent sexual acts. We’re talking foul-mouthed verbal assaults and  blood curdling laughter. Imagination? Psychological transference? Doesn’t matter – we’re talking spine-tingling horror.

Turck switches between the mild-mannered Jason and the evil Tyrone throughout the show, which runs nearly two hours with one intermission. The rough-edged voice he uses for Tyrone as well as the shouting must wreak havoc on his vocal cords, but he doesn’t hold back. He goes full out and is the only character that really earns our sympathy. Jones Clark turns in an edgy performance as his mother, and as much as she’s obviously hurting, her actions do not generate much sympathy. One wonders what’s going on in this small town, as Margery is pursued by both Pastor Greg (Iacovo) and the foul-mouthed bully, Timmy (Adam Valentine), who reluctantly attends the puppet ministry while his mother is otherwise engaged in her AA meetings. The third young member of the puppet ministry is Jessica (Anne Michelle Forbes), a shy teen who uses her buxom female puppet to get through to Jason/Tyrone in a most surprising way in the second act.

Hopper’s direction keeps things moving, but I found some scene changes in the first act ran a little long, and while Melton’s set authentically captured VBS, it was surprisingly unsteady and had a noticeable gap in the rear wall – both of which are probably due to the need to unfold several panels to reveal the pastor’s office in the second act. The puppet theater, also designed by Melton, actually seemed much sturdier than the actual set. Joey Luck created the sound design with his usual impeccable touch, and Michael Jarett did the  lighting – which included some impressive lightning.  Heidi Rugg is credited with the puppetry, ranging from Timmy’s simple sock puppet to Jessica’s femme fatale and Jason’s two versions of Tyrone – one of which featured teeth and horns.

There is nothing delicate about Hand to God: Askins – and this well-chosen cast – tackle family dynamics, sexual issues, religious hypocrisy, and more with rawness and humor. There is no happy ending. There is no clear-cut good or bad. Major, life-changing decisions made by the characters raise more questions than they answer – all of which sounds, to me, like the elements of good theater.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

Hand to God.5
Fred Iacovo, Kimberly Jones Clark, Adam Valentine, Adam Turck, and Anne Michelle Forbes
Hand to God.4
Tyrone
Hand to God.3
Adam Turck and Anne Michelle Forbes
Hand to God.2
Tyrone and Adam Turck