I almost never walk into a theatre with a preconceived notion of how I will write a review. Then sometimes the format or need for a particular perspective sweeps over me as soon as I arrive. The first people I ran into at The Kalita Humphreys Theater when I attended Uptown Players’ opening night of Harbor were the parents of featured youth actor Kennedy Waterman. They were awaiting their teen-aged daughter’s first opening night performance on the celebrated Humphreys stage. Kennedy is one of the leading actors at Jeff Swearingen’s FunHouse Theatre and Film, seasoned in comedy, drama and classics (and about to co-star with her teacher/mentor in a unique production of Death of A Salesman). The night before, I had attended the opening of Samuel D. Hunter’s award-winning The Whale at Jason Leyva’s L.I.P. Service in Farmers Branch, where another leading FunHouse Theatre and Film actor, Taylor Donnelson, gave a confident, gritty featured performance in her stage debut with professional adult actors. I realized that this review should encompass both plays, tied together with focus on the two young actors from FunHouse Theatre and Film.
The Whale at L.I.P. Service Productions: The Whale is one brilliant gem of a masterfully crafted, challenging, gripping play, directed with clearly defined adherence to themes and arcs by Danny Machietto. It’s easy to see why this work won the 2013 Drama Desk Award and the 2013 Lucille Lortel Outstanding Play Award and helped earn its playwright Samuel D. Hunter a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2014. Intimate details of unapologetic humanity pour out of every scene, driven by the main character Charlie’s deepest desire to find charity in every human and embody it himself, before he dies. All five characters that cross the stage have flaws, obvious ones; yet through their connection to Charlie, the 600 pound man dying of congestive heart disease, they find an essence of goodness within and come to embody the hope he clings to with his last dying breath. Spare, earthy language, punctuated with raw outrage, poetic expression and agonizing pause where breathing becomes the most precious act, itself, flows across the play’s landscape in oceanic waves. Imagery from the Biblical Jonah tale intertwines with excerpts of Melville’s Moby Dick throughout as Charlie, an online English professor, discusses papers he’s grading, tries to persuade his hostile teen daughter to write for him, and a forlorn, conflicted Mormon invites himself into the food-wrapper strewn home with hopes of giving Charlie a final shot at salvation. Charlie lives in a surreal dreamscape where ideas and aspirations have more reality than the outside world. It’s the collision of his internalized world with the external realities the other characters bring with them that creates the play’s intriguing conflicts. L.I.P. Service Productions brings this mythic, multi-layered play to life with sophistication and dignity, in its North Texas premiere.
As Charlie, L.I.P. Service’s Artistic Director Jason Leyva dons the infamous 600 pound “fat suit” and gives an extraordinary performance as a man encumbered by his own grotesque body but graced with personal enlightenment so deeply felt, so pervasive, it blesses all he comes into contact with and inspires hope. It’s excruciating to watch his physical suffering, so vividly portrayed in minute detail by Leyva, yet joyful, as well, when it becomes obvious how Charlie impacts the others and how he welcomes without fear his impending death. Most arresting scene, for this critic, occurs when Charlie’s ex-wife Mary (Leslie Boren) stalks in to confront him, seething with rage. Mary enters ready to decimate him, eyes shooting fire; it seems miraculous that the two characters can follow a natural arc across the scene to achieve a moment of pure love and gentle intimacy. Boren matches Leyva in nuance and intensity; they inhabit the characters and illuminate the soaring script with a grounded reality that leaves an unforgettable impression of simple, honest love and blessed acceptance. Without a doubt the toughest relationship to negotiate and find peace with for Charlie is the one with his estranged teen daughter Ellie. Ellie’s rage against life and herself verges on psychosis. She’s utterly out of control. It would be easy to have an actor portray her with tantrums and stereotypical, hysterical overacting. When FunHouse Theatre veteran Taylor Donnelson enters, as directed by Danny Machietto, she embodies an almost benumbed loathing that seeps out in fits and starts, snarled between tightly clenched teeth and fists. She rebuffs Charlie’s persuasive attempts to reach through her white rage armor with the determined, easy control of a long-practiced stage artist, not a high school senior in her first “pro” show. Ellie bears a weary disdain tinged with predatory sarcasm across the arc of the play, particularly obvious when she manipulates the unsuspecting Mormon missionary into behavior he doesn’t want her to photograph and broadcast from her cell phone. It’s hard to pull focus from stage powerhouses like Leyva or R. Andrew Aguilar (playing the Mormon), but Donnelson sinks in her claws as Ellie and makes it happen as directed and scripted. Another coup for FunHouse Theatre graduates.
A few performance issues bothered me opening night, notable but not marring the overall sterling impression of the production. Pacing was slow, with more black out time between scenes than seemed necessary. Some directorial choices distracted: a bike helmet brought in a
at a first entrance but puzzlingly not touched or removed after; an actor blocked to upstage themselves in an early expository scene with face not visible to the audience. It’s a challenge to imagine R. Andrew Aguilar as an insecure 19-year-old hot head with a sketchy past as costumed and directed. With his commanding presence and mature, measured demeanor, and attired in long-sleeved man’s business dress shirt and tie, his Elder Thomas seems more well into his thirties than a teen-ager. A strong performer whatever the age, Aguilar conveys the genuine loneliness and idealistic hopefulness that draws Elder Thomas to Charlie with gentle, truthful poignancy. His hard-edged final exit adds unexpectedly resonant dramatic impact to the performance. Amy Cave ably projects heartfelt warmth as Charlie’s nurse and enabling close friend Liz throughout but shows little energized transformation in her final revelation scene. Opening night it felt almost like an afterthought. When all is said and done, these quibbles pale in comparison to the soulful performance Jason Leyva gives as the dying man full of love and hope. It’s a winner of a performance in an exquisitely beautiful play. None of it for the faint of heart.
The Whale runs through October 24 at The FireHouse Theatre, 2535 Valley View Lane, in Farmers Branch.
Harbor at Uptown Players: The first act of this comedy presents as a TV sitcom-style junket of fluff. It’s filled with trite, homophobic statements voiced from the start by the play’s rude female lead with ingenuous glee. And continues throughout. Many in the audience laugh. Maybe because the sit-com pauses in the dialogue seem to urge it? The show’s neon-sign predictable plot stretches out as if it could go on for hours. (Two white middle class gay guys in a 10 year relationship get “surprise” house guests in the form of a disgusting female relative with a lonely teenaged daughter and a “surprise” pregnancy, learn big lessons about life in the ‘burbs and find peace and harmony and babies forever.) Sigh. Why do people write such plays?
Acting is appropriate from the three adults in a perky sort of “tell a joke and hold for the laugh track way” shows like this get written: Chad Peterson and Kevin Moore make a believable couple; Cara Statham Serber has the rude homophobe preggers relative role down pat, very loud, very annoying. Director Coy Covington handles his ensemble with ease and keeps the pace crisp and even. Wandering quietly through the canned chaos, teen actor Kennedy Waterman brings a calming sanity to the ensemble and the wonky plotline, a character to care about. She has fewer lines than everybody else, but it’s a relief to watch her work efficiently and unaffectedly when she is on stage. The show continues, with Act Two more frenetic as characters behave more outrageously. Then Waterman takes control and turns the show on its head. Through sheer force of her honest acting and gut-real interpretation, the show develops a steady beating heart. Is it the playwright’s intent, the director’s or just serendipitous due to Waterman’s serious acting chops? With the help of Ted (Chad Peterson), Waterman’s character Lottie has found the phone number of the man who may have fathered her. She steps downstage left, picks up a phone and dials the number. Her short, plaintive, at first hopeful then heart-breaking, conversation with a man who has no interest in talking to her changes the game. Her veracity and tautly revealed emotion catapults the play into a different emotional space, a space that actually makes it art and meaningful, takes its audience on a transcendent journey. Harbor stops being a silly sitcom. This is an example of performance art’s amazing power to transform and how acting skill and talent can be the catalyst. Kudos to FunHouse Theatre for fostering the talent Kennedy Waterman exhibits in Harbor, in her first show on the Kalita Humphreys stage. Her solo moment in Act Two is worth the price of the entire ticket. Harbor runs through October 25.at The Kalita Humphreys Theater. http://www.uptownplayers.org 214-219-2718
The Whale photos by Leslie Boren at Urban Photography
Headshot of Taylor Donnelson by Chuck Marcielo
Headshot of Kennedy Waterman by Bradley K. Ross
For more info about FunHouse Theatre and Film: http://www.funhousetheatreandfilm.com