God Bridge with Youngblood
STUFFY BACKGROUND CRITICISM
The Youngblood Theatre Company closes its opening month with a production of God Bridgeâ€”a world premiere of a feature-length play by Benjamin James Wilson. A quick glance at the synopsis and cast list reveals a story that feels very much like an ancient fable or parable. A woman who has lost her son travels with her fiancĂ©e to a bridge, where both are accosted by a pair of men who appear to be guarding it. Her search for her son finds her traveling alone under the bridge, running into a High Priestess, a sheltered, innocent girl and an oracle. The feel of the fableâ€”the overall impression of the story has deeper roots that go back to tales of the ancient Greeks and probably even further back. The story of a hero going into a dangerous place to retrieve a loved one who has been cast outÂ of favor is not uncommon. The plot has strong parallels with the story of Orpheusâ€™ descent into Hades to reclaim his love Eurydice. This type of story is found in a number of cultures including tales from the ancient Japanese, Mayans and Sumerians, but as I donâ€™t really want to get lost on a whole Carl Jung/Joseph Campbell trip, Iâ€™ll refrain from a complex analysis of the ancient precursors of the plot.
Taking a story format from ancient traditions and bringing it into contemporary setting can be fascinating, but it can also be fatuous and overly introspective. Sarah Ruhlâ€™s recent retelling of the story of Eurydice (recently staged by the Milwaukee Rep) was utterly lacking in any substantial insight to the story and as a result was quite dull. Wilsonâ€™s exploration of the same type of ancient story is far more engaging than the Pulitzer Prize nomineeâ€™s attempt at a specific adaptation of the story of Eurydice. Part of Wilsonâ€™s success with the tale of a hero's journey comes from the fact that he infuses the story with other interesting themes and subtleties. The most fascinating little extra here is a provocative statement being made about the nature of authority and what William S. Burroughs referred to as â€ścontrolâ€™s need to control.â€ť Youngblood brings a similar story to the stage in a an exceedingly entertaining way.
After an opening curtain speech, the lights go up on Robyn Starkey in the role of Ariannaâ€”the mother. She is obviously quite upset . . . rambling on and on about her lost son. Wilson levels one hell of a challenge to the woman playing Ariannaâ€”we know nothing about her and are asked to instantly sympathize with her. Thereâ€™s no emotional buld-up here. Weâ€™re thrown right into this woman pouring out her heart. Itâ€™s a bit jarring at first, but Starkey manages to pull it off . . . compellingly drawing-in the audience to sympathize with her. Starkey is aided by Michael Cotey in the role of her fiancĂ©e Mark, who tries to calm her down. Heâ€™s stern. We can tell heâ€™s frustrated. The complexity of his character becomes apparent later on. Itâ€™s an interesting performance in an interesting role. The precise motivations of the character may be difficult to follow at times, but Cotey does a really good job of making them feel very, very real.
After Ariannaâ€™s initial monologue, the play switches gears to a location that it will remain in for much of the rest of the play: the area above a bridge in a city not unlike Milwaukee. Jason Waszak and Daniel Koester play evidently homeless, possibly schizophrenic people who stand near a building at the top of the bridge. Koester and Waszakâ€™s characters are fast-talking absurdist comic relief . . . sort of a mix between Groucho & Chico, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern and Pozzo & Lucky. Waszak and Koester are a lot of fun . . .and a bit of terror as well, as they represent a kind of dangerous insanity that Arianna and her fiancĂ© have fallen into in their search for her son.
In the initial conversation between the two men at the bridge, the audience also encounters Evan Crainâ€™s set. Crain has developed a derelict, graffiti-ridden building that has a great deal of personality. Look closely and youâ€™ll see stylized, very natural-looking bits of graffiti. Much of it appears to be dialogue from the play, giving the whole thing a kind of pre-determined, humanity-versus-fate kind of a feel to things. Very clever. And the graffiti looks so natural that the dialogue on the wall doesnâ€™t come across as being at all forced.
The plot progresses as Arianna goes under the bridge and encounters a series of strange people in her search for her son. Starkey really hits an interesting rhythm with Arianna here. When I read the synopsis, I was envisioned an adult version of Alice fromÂ Alice In Wonderland running into Robin Williamsâ€™ character from The Fisher King. People familiar with both will probably have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the mood of things underneath the bridge.
After a weekend of seeing two musicals with plots that were all too familiar to me, it was a real relief to see something completely new. In an effort to give readers an opportunity to have that experience, I wonâ€™t go into great detail about what goes on underneath the bridge. Ariannaâ€™s interaction with the High Preistess (Lineve Thurman) is kind of an interesting look at organized religion played out on a very simple behavioral scale. Katie Beth Whittaker is captivating as the innocent girl sheltered from the world above the bridge. Whittakerâ€™s character has some of the best moments in the play and sheâ€™s absolutely brilliant with them. At one point, she and Arianna are waling along under the bridge when Whittaker's character sweetly and dismissively states that thereâ€™s really nothing about her thatâ€™s healthy. As she says so, sheâ€™s tossing what appear to be bits of raw ground chuck on her path, gently stepping on some and carefully avoiding others. It's a very endearing portrayal of madness. Rounding out the cast, Max Hultquist has a dreamy youth about him as the Oracle.
This is a thoroughly satisfying end to Youngbloodâ€™s three-show debut month.
Youngbloodâ€™s production of God Bridge runs through August 2nd