Monday, July 27, 2009

God Bridge with Youngblood

By Russ Bickerstaff
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STUFFY BACKGROUND CRITICISM

The Youngblood Theatre Company closes its opening month with a production of God Bridge—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 fiancée 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 fable—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 out  of favor is not uncommon. The plot has strong parallels with the story of Orpheus’ 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 don’t really want to get lost on a whole Carl Jung/Joseph Campbell trip, I’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 Ruhl’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. Wilson’s exploration of the same type of ancient story is far more engaging than the Pulitzer Prize nominee’s attempt at a specific adaptation of the story of Eurydice. Part of Wilson’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 “control’s need to control.” Youngblood brings a similar story to the stage in a an exceedingly entertaining way.

THE SHOW

After an opening curtain speech, the lights go up on Robyn Starkey in the role of Arianna—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 Arianna—we know nothing about her and are asked to instantly sympathize with her. There’s no emotional buld-up here. We’re thrown right into this woman pouring out her heart. It’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 fiancée Mark, who tries to calm her down. He’s stern. We can tell he’s frustrated. The complexity of his character becomes apparent later on. It’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 Arianna’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 Waszak’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 fiancé 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 Crain’s set. Crain has developed a derelict, graffiti-ridden building that has a great deal of personality. Look closely and you’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 doesn’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 from  Alice In Wonderland running into Robin Williams’ 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 won’t go into great detail about what goes on underneath the bridge. Arianna’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. Whittaker’s character has some of the best moments in the play and she’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 there’s really nothing about her that’s healthy. As she says so, she’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 Youngblood’s three-show debut month.

Youngblood’s production of God Bridge runs through August 2nd

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