Saturday, March 10, 2012

Chalk and Understanding: UWM's The Nature of Mutation

A Modern Allegory Bathed in chalk

By Russ Bickerstaff
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It’s a world of extremes. Things get extremely polarized politically—intellectually. All rational people are left with is an uninspired middle ground. Extremes are sexy—all or nothing and all of that. But they’re not terribly practical. There’s a real beauty in the uncertainty that lies outside of extremes that so often goes unnoticed. Personally I think it’s every bit as appealing as throwing bombs from the left or the right. UWM does a really good job of selling uncertainty as a viable option in its production of John Walch’s The Nature of Mutation now through March 11th.

While the play makes no attempt to hide the fact that it is essentially a collection of allegories woven into a feature-length script, it is not without its charm. The really big symbol here is that of chalk…it is wheeled in and out of the stage on rolling blackboards that practically become their own characters. They add to the narrative characters are introduced with them. They serve as scenery. Visually its really interesting to see how nearly the whole world of the story manifests itself through those rolling blackboards.

The play tells the story of a private prep school that is given a rather large grant in exchange for including intelligent design in the biology class. There are opinions people get angry. Extremism in one form or another is present in nearly every character in the play . . . except for perhaps the character of Thomas Henry Huxley (as played by Glenn Widdicombe.) Widdicombe’s appearance here as Huxley . . . and Huxley’s presence in the play make for the most striking distinguishing feature in the play. Here we see a 19th century agnostic biologist as something of a towering intellectual hero. Widdicombe does a good job of working with some of Walch’s most sophisticated moments with Huxley as a hero of rational thought. Speaking as tireless, even passionate agnostic, it’s really cool to see a script where agnosticism is cast in a heroic light. Kind of inspiring. Widdicombe does a really good job of selling it, aided by a really clever bit of costuming by Pamela J, Rehberg.

Of course, focusing on one performance here isn’t doing justice to the whole ensemble, which does a really good job of bringing all the disparate little bits of allegory together. And as usual with a UWM production, there are quite a few appearances by quite a few talents that probably will not show up on local stages nearly as much as they should in the near future. In this particular production those include Julia Huryk . . . comically sharp as a girl asked to pay lip service to Christianity in the interest of getting as scholarship to attend the school. Cheyong Hyeon Park is suitably moody as a teen boy dealing with the suicide of his brother. Brittany Curran isn’t asked to do much as part of the ensemble here, but there’s a moment where she’s playing the disembodied voice of customer service as a tutorial program for a smart phone. She’s got a clever sense of the comedy in voicemail  that adds to a one of the play’s better comic moments.

UWM Peck School of the Arts’ production of The Nature of Mutation runs through March 11th at UWM’s Mainstage Theatre. For ticket reservations, call 414-229-4308. A concise review of the show appears in the next Shepherd-Express.

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