Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Women and Wallace

Women and Wallace at Sundown Collaborative Theatre, my latest review for John Garcia's The Column -- published on Friday, February 5th, 2010 in The Column and on PegasusNews.com:

John Garcia's THE COLUMN- Friday February 5, 2010





Clyde Berry
Mary Clark
Cheryl Cory
Esther Coughey
Ray Gestaut
Richard Goulde
Lyle Huchton
Laurie Lindemeier
Samantha McChensney Franks
Mandy Rausch
Mark-Brian Sonna


WOMEN AND WALLACE-A play by Jonathan Marc Sherman
Sundown Collaborative Theatre


REVIEWED BY Mandy Rausch

Directed by Cody Lucas
Assistant Director Morgan Hillan
Costume/Makeup Design by Candace Cockerham
Props Design by Cody Lucas and Tiffany Hillan
Scenic Artist Andrew K. Currey


Wallace Kirkman…….....….Travis Stuebing
Mother/Psychiatrist….…..Samantha Labrada
Grandmother…………........…Whitnie Wood
Victoria/Wendy……......……Jenna Holley
Sarah/Lily………….......…….Danielle Trudeau
Nina…………………..........…..Vera Brumley

REVIEWED BY Mandy Rausch

As we enter into the month of February, we find ourselves bombarded with accoutrements of "love" everywhere we look. "Show your love by buying her ______," the radio and television commercials tell us. Stores have set up blinding pink and red displays as you walk in, so as to make sure you can't miss the giant stuffed pink gorilla wearing a t-shirt that says "Wild Thing." It's enough to make a person sick.

Leave it to the innovative and edgy Sundown Collaborative Theatre, a grass-roots theatre company picking up a lot of steam in Denton, Texas, to take the cheesy Nicholas Sparks version of love and give it a swift kick in the rump. Love, ladies and gentleman, is nothing like The Notebook, and Sundown's first show of 2010, WOMEN AND WALLACE by Jonathan Marc Sherman, is here to show us just how difficult, heartbreaking, and sometimes agonizing finding love can be. But if you think this play is anti-love – think again.

With the clever use of a handful of set pieces (boxes and columns painted black) in the sparse, black box setting (the upstairs of a coffee shop); creative use of props and staging; a soundtrack of carefully picked tunes; and a great cast who isn't afraid of anything, WOMEN AND WALLACE shows us that, while the path towards finding love can be ugly and sometimes make us crazy, in the end the ugly and crazy journey can help us appreciate the destination so much more.

The story revolves around Wallace Kirkman at various stages of his life from second grade up until his college years. At six years old, Wallace comes home from school one day to find his mother has committed suicide. Because of this obviously traumatic incident, his relationships with women going forward are awkward, strained and usually doomed from the start. These relationships are presented in the form of vignettes, often narrated by Wallace himself through the use of his journal entries.

Travis Stuebing as Wallace gives a truly remarkable performance. He never leaves the stage, which is a feat in itself with this script. All his costume changes are done off to the side or as part of the action between scenes, and even at these times he remains in character and never loses focus. An actor could easily turn Wallace into an over the top and one-dimensional "traumatized male now hates women and is angry at the world" character, but Stuebing finds and presents all the layers of Wallace's personality and bares them to the audience with heart-breaking and poignant reality.

In one moment, Wallace has the audience laughing (albeit a bit uncomfortably) in the reenactment of a dream, and in the very next moment he is poised at the edge of the stage (and likely at the edge of his own reason) pitifully crying out for want of his mother there with him. His facial expressions and total commitment to the character help him to take the audience along on Wallace's roller coaster ride through relationships. You'll laugh, you'll cry…and you'll probably cringe more than a few times. I cannot say enough good things about Travis Stuebing.

The women of Wallace's life are played by Samantha Labrada, Whitnie Wood, Jenna Holley and Danielle Trudeau. Labrada's characters have the fewest lines, but she still manages to say a lot as Wallace's mother and psychiatrist. Wood gets several laughs as the grandmother who seems to have a morbid obsession with framed photographs of people days before their deaths.

Holley and Trudeau each play two different love interests of Wallace's at various stages in his journey. Each relationship fails, but each also reinforces Wallace's idea that all women will eventually desert him. In addition to their named roles, this talented quartet acts as both a run crew changing around set pieces and handing Wallace his props as needed, as well as a miniature Greek chorus, aiding Wallace in the vignettes of his life and the transitions in between.

Vera Brumley plays Nina; the one woman who challenges all of Wallace's preconceived notions about women. It is entirely necessary that the character of Nina should stand out from the rest of the women in Wallace's life, so Brumley is dressed differently from the other girls in a very obvious way, and does not participate in any of the aforementioned action of the other four women. She gives a solid, mature performance, and it is no wonder that Wallace should eventually be stopped in his tracks by her.

One of the reasons (besides the talent of the actors of course) that this production is so effective is the script itself. It is funny and poignant without being pretentious at all. Any of the obvious references and symbols one might draw from the content are put into the script itself and addressed (i.e. Freud, Oedipus complexes, etc.) candidly.

The other reason is the team behind this production. Director Cody Lucas deserves high praise for his unique and fun (and often funny) staging and use of the female ensemble and the boxy set pieces.

There is constant action and entertainment even during the
scene changes and, while nobody is credited for the sound
design, I'm willing to venture a guess that he had a lot to
do with the soundtrack to this production, which I enjoyed very much.

In his Director's Notes, Lucas mentions that he felt an instant connection with Sherman's script the first time he read it. Lucas's understanding of the material is very clear in his directorial choices. Everything has a purpose, the action is fast-paced and energetic, and there seems to be symbolism ingrained in every piece of staging, every song choice, every movement made onstage.

The themes created and chosen by Lucas are carried throughout the design elements of the show. The oversized and cartoonish props made out of cardboard (designed by Tiffany Hillan and Lucas) seem indicative of the child in Wallace that remains prevalent in the years following his mother's death.

The costume and makeup design by Candace Cockerham is simple and effective: the members of the female ensemble wear all black when they are not playing a specific character, and pieces are added to these basic costumes as they take on the roles of specific women.

Nina's character, by contrast, is dressed primarily in white. She does wear black leggings, tying her in with the female ensemble, but with pink accessories that accentuate her sweetness and set her apart from all the rest. Wallace is dressed in jeans, but changes shirts to indicate the progression through his life and his mental state at the time – from cartoony pajamas at age six to a bare chest and jeans when he is at his most vulnerable.

Perhaps my very favorite element of the production, however, is the scenic artistry of Andrew K. Currey. I mentioned before that the set pieces are utilitarian blocks and columns painted black, but this is only upon first glance. As the vignettes of Wallace's life are presented and the scenery is shifted for each, snippets of color and bits of phrases are shown as these set pieces are turned at different times. One might think that these little bits of color and words shown in specific scenes are arbitrary, but I would put money on there being a purpose and reason for each piece shown at any given time. Lucas doesn't appear to have done anything accidentally in this production.

I won't give away the final statement and picture shown (it is much better in person anyway), but it truly is a beautiful piece of art punctuating Wallace's final realization in the last scene of the play.

I give major kudos to Sundown Collaborative Theatre for being, in this critic's opinion, the epitome of what an upstart theatre company should be. They choose edgy and thought-provoking material and present it in a creative and compelling manner on a low budget. This company knows exactly who they are and what they want to accomplish, and it seems they are doing just that.

So, instead of going to see your run-of-the-mill, sappy romantic movie for Valentine's Day, take a walk on the cynical and realistic side and go see WOMEN AND WALLACE while you still can.

REVIEWED by Mandy Rausch

WOMEN AND WALLACE, February 4, 5, 6, 11, 12, 13 and 14
at the Hydrant Café, 208 W. Oak Street, Denton TX 76201.

Ticket prices $8-10; www.sundowntheatre.org for more info.

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