Friday, Sept. 21, 2012

An Introduction to Youngblood's [SIC]

Meet Babette, Theo, Frank and the Airshafts

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Youngblood Theatre's latest is Melissa James Gibson's [sic]. The title makes reference to unedited, quoted text in the body of a larger work. And the play itself may be an attempt to, in some way, show the unedited end of people that they wouldn't normally want other people to see. Don't worry, though. It isn't disgusting, really. And none of the characters do anything that is overtly sickening on any level. Nor is it the long stretches of idle moments at work or not that seem to make up most of an average persons unedited life. (We do spend a lot of our time sleeping, don't we?)

So [sic] isn't really life unedited . . . it's just life seen through those comic moments where we are behaving in a way that we might think of as being embarrassing if other people were looking in on us . . . or maybe not I don't know. Melissa James Gibson seems to be toying with imperfect allegory about imperfect people. And that's kind of cool, but that's no reason to see this particular play because it's been done better else where.


No--the reason to see this play is the people. TV writer/producer Rob Long once said that TV producers don't care whether or not a sitcom is actually funny. Humor is evidently a variable they don't really care about. The important question is whether or not the characters are interesting and pleasant enough to keep a viewer wanting to hang out with them for 22 minutes with commercials once a week for the duration of a TV season. Producers figure that people don't necessarily want to laugh or think, they just want to hang out with characters. They want friends. And for a while for a great many people those friends ended up being Jennifer Anniston and Courtney Cox and Lisa Kudrow and Matthew Perry and so on . . . 


But Melissa James Gibson's [sic] doesn't have to make you think. (Though it can.) And Melissa James Gibson's [sic] doesn't have to make you laugh. (Though it's actually very, very good at doing this.) It doesn't even have to be about characters that you would want to hang out with for 22 minutes with commercials once a week for the duration of a TV season. No . . . all it has to do is be about characters that you wouldn't mind hanging out with for 90 minutes without intermission. And this it does best of all. Director Jason Economus has as an actor, in the past, worked on comedy scripts that he didn't think were funny (like Hate Mail with In Tandem) and crafted characters that remained interesting throughout an intermission-less period (like Zoo Story with Bialystock and Bloom.) Here he has done a really good job of fostering an environment that has allowed interesting characters remain interesting and endearing for 90 minutes without intermission. 


And that's the real reason to see this show: Three actors play three different characters who are all quite fun to hang out with. Each occupies his or her own little stage that represents some tiny approximation of the tiny apartment they live in. The area between is occupied by the audience and it represents the hall of the apartment building they live in. Each one of them is more than interesting enough to want to hang out with for the better part of a couple of hours. And since there is only a limited time to see these particular characters played by these particular actors, it's worth seeing while they're still around. 


To summarize: Theatre is about people. Here are some of them:


(above photo from Cinpinski's Facebook)


Babette (played by Tess Cinpinski): Babette seems like a really nice, really affable person. She is clearly having a cash flow problem, but haven't we all had that at one time or another? So we're not exactly seeing her at her best moment. She's also writing a book. I think it's about the history of the outburst . . . probably fiction.


Tess is fun here. It's nice to see her be able to play something closer to straghtahead comedy than she's played in the past. She's good with comedy. Really good. There's a human center to it that's really appealing. Babette's condition is the same one so many of us find ourselves in . . . trying to work on and strive for that which is the most important while perhaps losing sight of the fact that we are starving and must compromise on some level just to get fed. Ultimately there's some sort of artifice and manipulation in everything even when we're trying to be true to inspiration. Or maybe not. Whatever the case, she's a really charming person. 


Hang out with Babette and she'll read you a couple of excerpts from her book. She occupies the apartment closest to the stairwell. You'll recognize it by the vacuum cleaner in the corner.


(above photo from Matt Koester's Facebook)


Theo (played by Matt Koester): Theo has a thing for Babette. And they had a thing together once. (Sort of. Bear in mind, she was drunk at the time . . .) In any case, he's the one of the three of them who seems gainfully employed. I wouldn't know for certain, but I think that he's living off an advance on work that he's doing as a composer. He's working on the score to a theme park ride. (I think that's what it is anyway.) He mirrors that obsessive end of the human condition that can't seem to sit down and obsess over anything that may actually be productive. Or not. 


Matt Koester was fun here. He was picking up a role originally advertised as being played by Milwaukee comedy fixture Patrick Schmitz. And a part of me couldn't help but imagine Patrick Schmitz in the role. Early on I was imagining what he might have been like as Theo, but by about a quarter hour of the way into the play, Theo was all Koester's. It's weird . . . to a certain extent, [sic] is sort of the antithesis of the musical RENT . . . this is a completely unpretentious look at twenty-somethings that makes fun of those all-too-human elements that are so prevalent in life after college. Koester's portrayal of a composer who can't seem to bang out a single phrase is the crystallization of that anti-RENT-ness that makes this play such clever comedy that is so fun to watch. 


You'll recognize his apartment on your walk into the theatre space by the synthesizer resting in one corner. If you want to hang out with him a bit closer than the other two, you might want to sit closer to his "apartment." 


(Note: The above picture is of Matt Koester--NOT Theo. To picture him in character, picture him with thick Buddy Holly glasses. Or picture him with his eyes crossed. Either way . . .  )


(above photo courtesy of Ross Zentner)


Frank (played by Benjamin James Wilson): Dan has a thing for Theo, but mostly not. Mostly he's really just trying to get over a thing he had for an old boyfriend. Dan's probably the most gifted of the three we see here, but that's kind of a subjective judgment. He's likely been through a series of obsessions over  the course of his adult life. Here we see him trying to perfect his diction. He's the one always reciting tongue-twisters that may or may not have some sort of thematic parallel with what's going on in the lives of the three neighbors. We find out that he's studying to become an auctioneer. Kind of an interesting line of work, that. (Did you know that all auctioneers have the honorary title of Colonel? Weird . . . )


In the past, we've seen Benjamin James Wilson's scripts make it to the stage. And they've been interesting--even captivating. Here we see Wilson as a comic actor with serious heart and it works really  well onstage. Opening night everything may not have been in perfect synch for him with respect to the physical end of the comedy, but his instincts are really fun to watch play out onstage. There are a lot of little physical things that make his performance here distinctive . . . his dramatic opening of a letter, for instance, borders somewhere between really funny and way-too-over-the-top too be funny. Wilson walks that edge pretty well. 


Frank's apartment is the one furthest back. It's probably most distinctive in its lack of distinctiveness. 


and finally . . . there are a couple of characters here seen only in silhouette James Boylan and Anna Figlesthaler play characters listed in the program as "Airshaft Man" and "Airshaft Woman." This "Airshaft Couple" are present onstage in silhouette only. The humor in their dialogue is buried in the very serious drama of a couple of people who seem to be having a falling out. The Airshafts' dialogue is far less quirky than  the rest of it . . . Boylan and Figlesthaler do a good job of delivering pretty sophisticated characterization with voice and casual silhouette alone. There might have been a desire to amp-up the physicality of it in a way that would make it seem awkward and stilted. Boylan and Figlesthaler keep the least bizarre aspect of the play firmly grounded in a very organic reality. 


Youngblood's production of [sic] runs through October 5th at Bucketworks on 706 South 5th Street. For ticket reservations, visit Youngblood online.



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