Monday, April 18, 2011

Skyscrapers of the Midwest, Available Light, 04/15/11

“Whether she is writing about what she thinks could, should, or might someday exist or might have once existed, or whether he is dallying with some future fantasia so far away all subjunctive connection with the here and now is severed or is writing about the most nitty-gritty of recognizable landscapes, the writer has still become entranced with and dedicated her- or himself to the realization of what is not.  And all the “socially beneficial functions of art” are minimal before this aesthetic one:  it allows the present meaning:  it allows the future to exist.”
-Samuel R. Delany, “Thickening the Plot”

AVL’s been on a streak through their 2010-2011 season, and Skyscrapers of the Midwest was another ball knocked out of the park.  Adapted from the comic book of the same name by Joshua W. Cotter, which I haven’t read, this turns around the standard wisdom that comics don’t work for the stage (anyone remember Violent Cases?).  Beyond that, it knocked me back and took the breath out of my lungs with that raw sense of wonder that only theater has for me. 

What this production gets brilliantly right about childhood is that, if you’re aware enough and imaginative enough, everything is magnified and while fantasy is a way of coping with things you don’t understand logically yet that fantasy, reality’s also a vehicle for fantasy.  The two lives seem almost as large in your head and anything sad or funny is imbued with that same magical light and other things that resonate with that real event also resonate with the fantastic aura, for years sometimes.  There are images in this play of death and evil and transformation that are drawn so sharply and shown so plainly that there’s nothing I could do but go, “That’s an amazing way of thinking about X.”  I don’t want to give them away, they were so crisp and gorgeously bracing in the moment.  Anything with a typical antecedent is twisted just so.

Those fantasy elements are perfectly established and grounded in the sparse set and costume design by – yeah, sorry, I handed my program back to be recycled like an idiot, but whoever it is did a fantastic job – both realistic enough but also just exaggerated enough, clearly products of memory, not representing the here and now.   Brant Jones’ video work  provides some of the biggest laughs in the production and scores some of the deepest cuts.  Dave Wallingford’s sound work (including some voice parts) and Michelle Whited’s cueing of some of the effects is placed right on stage as it should be, clearly a large piece of the overall reality, and Carrie Cox’s lighting is crystalline and haunting. 

Unsurprisingly for an Available Light show, the acting’s uniformly solid.  Acacia Duncan as young Josh Cotter is perfect, as good as I’ve ever seen her and that’s incredibly good.  Drew Eberly is a name you’ll be saying for a long time, I was blown the hell away.  Some of the most perfect comic timing I’ve ever seen on a stage, the minute he appears you’re on his side and he takes you across a landscape of emotions, keeping you riveted the entire time.   Ian Short is typically good as the grown Joshua Cotter, strong enough that you understand how he got out of that little town and insecure enough without being cloying or drifting into cliché. 

But my picks for on-stage MVPs of the show are Jordan Fehr and Elena Perantoni.  Over the two hours of the play, they go from the voices of an abusive, toxic relationship (from microphones at the corners of the stage, the visual element played out in Cotter’s comic panels on the screen behind the stage) to, respectively, a tracksuit-wearing dinosaur pal of Cotter’s younger brother and a cheerleader object of Cotter’s affection/obsession/the supervillainess equivalent of same, to the silent manifestations of death and internalized trauma, frequently with only seconds between.  Theirs are the kind of performances that sneak up on you and, if you’re anything like me, all you can talk about afterwards.

There are some weak spots, but it’s hard to swing this hard for the fences and not miss a couple.  As good as Ian Short is, the adult Joshua Cotter feels really overused.  It’s nice to put the story into some context of an overall life and show that art goes on beyond the memoir and life goes on beyond childhood but there are moments where his appearance distracts from the heart of the story instead of complicating it.  And the story with the abusive couple is heart-wrenching, but doesn’t quite seem to cohere with the rest of the show, I kept expecting one more scene that either firmly placed it among the other characters/setting or made it echo emotionally with everything else. 

Those qualms aside, most of this production is gold and if you’ve got any love for theater or music, go see this.  Get your picture taken with a dinosaur.  There’s no better way you could spend a couple of your hours this weekend.  Through April 23.