"Cartoon" draws out the best of Youngblood
Leave it to the boys and girls of the Youngblood Theatre Company to set our heads a-spinning.
They opened their season with a very funny play called "(sic)" on the second floor of a storefront think tank on the South Side.
For "Cartoon," which opened Friday night, they make us travel to a well-hidden palace called The Fortress on the edge of Riverwest. And for anyone who saw the unusual first work this year, just wait until you see "Cartoon."
Youngblood likes to talk about its theatrical efforts as being "cutting edge." Well, this time they cut the edge completely off and left us dangling on a ledge without a safety net below.
Cartoon, written in 2006 by Steve Yockey, is an allegory of obvious persuasion. There is nothing subtle about this play.
It's the story of a society ruled by the gentle-yet-scheming Esther, who uses a giant hammer to keep her cartoon character society in line. Her world is mundane and filled with ennui, a fact driven home by Winston the Puppet.
Nobody breaks out of this quiet world until Trouble decides to steal the hammer. A search, driven by Esther, ensues and makes for the only goal-oriented activity in the play.
That story sounds like something you might find in a freshman college political science class. A totalitarian regime demanding sameness and the efforts of a small minority to flee those bonds.
But this ain't no freshman political science class. It is, instead, a breathtaking example of professional theater at its most expressive, heartfelt, socially provocative and skilled best. It's almost hard to believe that you fall in love with something so unusual, but fall in love you will.
The cast is wonderful, infusing these cartoon characters with a wondrous humanity that makes us either love or pity them. Either way, we are always interested.
The women who play the paired Best Friends Forever give us a blatant look at the conforming glut of slaves to fashion and the mall that are so superficially prevalent. The girls, both full of a pasteurized sex appeal, are Sydney Mei Ruf-Wong, who plays Akane, and Alexandra Bonesho, playing Yumi. Bonesho is well on her way to becoming my favorite actress in Milwaukee. She was dazzling earlier this year in Next Act's "Microcrisis."
Much of the credit of this show must go to people who you never see on stage.
First is Dan Katula, a solid actor in the city who staged what was one of the best fights I've ever seen on stage. The two girls, Yumi and Akane, have quarreled over who really loves the Rock Star. And they stage a fight that seems to last forever and ends with Yumi strangling Akane. It is a searing death scene and a fight that makes you want to turn your eyes away.
Next up are the costumes designed by Eleanor Cotey, the wife of director Michael Cotey. They are so colorful and so evocative of everything a character is supposed to be that you can't take your eyes off them.
Tommy Simms did the animation, which shows up on a screen behind the actors and provides a lot of the laughs in the play. He's a very creative young man.
Eric Shallhorn designed one of the most imaginative sets you will ever see. The setting for Winston the Puppet alone is worth the price of admission.
And finally, there is Michael Cotey, one of the founders of Youngblood, who directed.
He is an actor of some note who has proven his abilities for several years, but for my money he is beginning to carve an enviable reputation as a director. The job he did with this show, which demands incredible flexibility along with studied discipline, is marvelous.
He has been tapped to direct "Comedy of Errors" at the prestigious Illinois Shakespeare Festival next year. He was chosen for that job by Kevin Rich, who has Milwaukee ties from his memorable work with late Milwaukee Shakespeare and Bialystock and Bloom.
Lest anyone think "Cartoon" is just a dreary polemic about society, it should be noted that humor abounds. The audience, wrapped up in the allegory, also found plenty of time for unbridled laughter.
In its mission statement, Youngblood says, "We strive for boldness with socially relevant work that challenges both artist and audience to experience."
After seeing Cartoon you can say, "Stop striving. You are there."
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