Youngblood's "[sic]" finds humor, spirit in the everyday
"Sally Sells Sea Shells at the Sea Shore."
No story. No plot. Nobody really cares about Sally, or her seashells or the seashore. It's just a silly exercise about getting your tongue around all those ridiculous words. No story at all.
That could easily have been "[sic]," the play by Melissa James Gibson that opened Youngblood Theatre's season Thursday night.
It's the story about three 20-somethings who are lost in life, or, if not exactly lost, at least they are spinning their wheels looking for direction. Does anybody really care anymore about 20-year-old angst except the 20-year-olds? Just a few years older and these kadults (which is what you can call these people caught between glories of irresponsibility and the grimness to come) will recognize the rest of the world is a lot more interesting than they are and move on with life.
In this instance it's three kadults who live in the same building, apparently on the same floor.
Theo is a romantic composer who is suffering at the hands of his latest assignment to write a stirring piece of music to be played at the site of a giant thrill ride in an amusement park. His wife has also left him and he's had sex with his neighbor Babette, and now he thinks she is his girlfriend.
Babette, who doesn't think of herself as the girlfriend and would just as soon forget that the sex ever happened, is a writer. She's deep into her major work, a compendium of great outbursts and tantrums that have changed the course of history. The title of the book is "The History of the World is The History of the Outburst." When we meet her she's hung up on Archduke Ferdinand who, she says, wanted a cool drink for his wife, only to find that the only one in town had been bought by a young Bosnian nationalist. They argue, the Bosnian shoots Ferdinand, and World War I is born.
And then there is Frank. Gay and alone and in love with Theo or Larry, who is Babette's friend, or nobody at all. Frank works hard during the day, practicing his own tongue twisters ("Betty Botter bought a bit of better butter") all in an attempt to become an auctioneer. Practice and audio tapes may lead to a fulfilling career as "The Colonel," which is what all auctioneers are called.
The story is ... well there really is no story. It's just a few moments in the life of these people. The play picks up somewhere in the middle of their lives and that's where the audience leaves them when they walk out. Nothing has been solved.
And that's where the potential for extreme yawns sets in. How much of their lives do we really want to know about, after all?
But with a brilliant directing hand, Jason Economus has set his actors free on a path and guided them along a hilarious route and invited us to come along. We are willing travelers in this journey.
And the actors take turns stealing scenes.
Frank, played with mincing manliness by Benjamin James Wilson, gets first crack at capture as he takes minutes – really minutes – to open a simple envelope containing a note from a deal woman whom we never see. We laugh, lean forward to watch, laugh again and lean further forward, hoping the damn letter will come out.
Theo, played by a frustrated Matt Koester, could steal the show with ease. He is a constant rock upon which this threesome exists. Except he rolls and roils with a turbulent personal life unrelieved by his professional ambitions or satisfactions. His Romeo is anguished by the unrequited love he has for his Juliet.
And then there's Babette, played with distinguished languor and vigor by Tess Cinpinski, who has a turn to steal the show as she works on her book. Her story of reading a book over the shoulder of an old woman on the subway and how she had to change trains so she could find out how it ended is a priceless piece of comedy.
What you are left with at the end is that nobody steals the show, which sparks chuckles and loud guffaws at a constant pace.
Economus directs this play with a fond remembrance of when he was a 20-something. It is his deft touch that keeps this play from falling into the crevice of "who cares."
Economus is truly an actor's director. He makes sure each actor understands both the humor and pathos in their character and gives space for each to roam. To do.
Several years ago he directed a memorable production of Chekov's "Seagull" with some of Milwaukee's best actors including Lurie Birmingham, Jonathan Wainwright, Marcus Truchinski and Molly Rhode. It was bare bones, no scenery and no props. Just Chekov and actors, and it still ranks among the best and most inventive productions this city has seen.
It would be hard for other theatre companies in Milwaukee to stage "[sic]." This is edgy and dangerous. The wordplay and focus on sound as a measure of the size of your heart can be difficult. That's why we must be glad there is a Youngblood Theatre. With plays like this, they keep all of us on our toes.
The best example of how funny this play is comes when the three characters gather on a starlit roof and wonder if they should play a game. But Trivial Pursuit is not on the menu. Here are some of the games they discuss.
"Do you wanna choose your parents?"
"All the conversations I don't want to have."
"Do you smell something burning?"
"Either I left the iron plugged in or the door unlocked, I just know it."
And perhaps the greatest game of them all ..."Teacher's Doubts Panned Out."
Twenty years old, lost in the world, happy and sad all at the same time. Your heart goes out to each of them. You ask yourself, should you laugh or cry?
And then you laugh.
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