REVIEW: Stalk (La Costa Theatre)

     
     

Grim fairy tale never lightens up

 

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La Costa Theatre presents
   
Stalk
 
By Stephen Gawrit
Directed by James Wagoner
La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston, et al. (map)
Through Nov. 28  | 
Tickets: $15–25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Uncomfortable topics have been the subject of many musicals, but rarely one so agonizing as Stalk, a world premiere by Stephen Gawrit currently at La Costa Theatre. This very dark story uses the fairy tale of "Jack and the Beanstalk" as a metaphor for child abuse.

That Stalk isn’t an ordinary musical becomes apparent right from the beginning … more than 10 minutes go past before we get to the first song. Instead, we hear young Jack’s parents engaged in a bitter off-stage argument, full of invective and foul language, and watch him sneak away with his grandmother to a strange circus where an odd, Bradburyesque barker tells the familiar story of the boy who traded the family cow for a handful of magic beans.

Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 023Cleverly conceived in many ways, the show features larger-than life puppets and masks conveying the fairy-tale characters. Gawrit employs interesting characterizations and intriguing uses of fantasy to emphasize his point.

But it never, ever lightens up. Stalk is a downer from start to finish. We watch Jack grow up in fear and pain with his brutal father and drug-addled mother, two bitterly disappointed souls forced to give up their youthful goals to be a musician and actress to return to their hometown, where he works in an abattoir and she waits tables. We witness a vicious beating and worse. Poor Jack’s only solace is his fey and ineffectual grandmother, and she dies in a pretty ugly way in front of him.

Hamlet has more bright notes than this show. There’s almost no comic relief. Other musicals, The Who’s Tommy, for instance, manage to deal with such very serious themes in far more entertaining and less depressing ways.

The pop/soft-rock tunes of Gawlit’s often dirgelike score underscore the grim mood. The music’s pleasant and well-performed, but after a while it all sounds the same. There’s not an upbeat song in the bunch.

Even "I Shine for You," a love song that Lily and Gregory, Jack’s parents sing to each other, has dark edges. "Edge of My Horizon," a song the then-teenaged Jack and his friend, Greta, sing at the start of the second act is lighter and more charming than most, but it isn’t enough to provide a lift. The score needs a few sparklers.

 

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The cast sings and acts well. Helene Alter-Dyche puts in a beguiling, if not always comprehensible performance as the grandmother. Scott Danielson terrifies as Gregory, the gruesome father/giant, and Meghan Phillipp seems suitably vacant as Jack’s mother, who metamorphoses into an ugly witch. Jacob Carlson creates a barker full of sinister mystery, really a highlight of the show.

Melissa Imbrogno portrays Greta, a friend of Jack’s who isn’t very well explained, but may live in a similarly abusive household. Jordan Phelps imbues Jack with terror and confusion.

The brightest spots in the whole show, though, are Lauren Michele Lowell’s fanciful costumes, particularly those of Jack and Greta in the second act.

Only sadists enjoy watching this much relentless pain. As important as the musical’s message is, Gawlit and company need to remember that they’re creating entertainment, and take this back to the drawing board to add happiness and hope, not to mention some stand-out songs.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
   

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Review: Mary-Arrchie’s “How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found”

Fin Kennedy’s witty dialogue drives suspenseful production

Mike-Charlie

Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company presents

How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found

by Fin Kennedy
directed by Richard Cotovsky
runs through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

London ad executive Charlie Hunt’s world is disintegrating. He’s just cremated his mother. His all-consuming work leaves him no time to go anywhere or meet anyone, and he’s more and more bothered by a belief that everything in his life is fake. He’s putting massive amounts of money up his nose, his colleagues are asking disturbing questions and he keeps hearing a buzzing in his ears.

Doctor-Charlie Pushed to the edge, one day he simply runs out of his office, leaving his jacket on the back of his chair and his mum’s funeral urn on his desk, and they never hear from him again.

Charlie is the central character of the intriguing "How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found" by rising young British playwright Fin Kennedy, now in Midwest premiere from Mary-Arrchie Theatre at the intimate Angel Island theater. How to Disappear was the first unproduced play in 40 years to win an Arts Council John Whiting Award for New Theatre Writing, after — according to the playwright — being rejected by nearly every theater in London.

Kennedy’s razor-sharp language, exhibited in powerful monologues and witty dialogue, builds a rising suspense as Charlie runs from his former life. Carlo Lorenzo Garcia puts in an intense and fascinating performance as the deteriorating Charlie, expounding on all the frustrations of daily life that all of us experience but few of us act upon. He’s excelled only by the impish Kevin Stark, as Mike, the small-time crook who serves as Charlie’s mentor in disappearing.

Director Richard Cotovsky‘s clever staging adds to the frenetic quality of the work. He gets excellent work from the supporting cast, most of whom play multiple characters — Charlie’s colleagues, chance-met strangers, doctors, telephone operators, etc. James Eldrenkamp stands out in a comic role as a London transit worker, juxtaposing ably with Charlie’s stuffy, upper-class boss.

Dialect coach Kathy Logelin must be an effective teacher — the cast handles class-conscious British with scarcely a stumble. They haven’t spent much on the set, but Scenic Designer William Anderson‘s 2-by-4 and newspaper backdrops contribute effectively to the disjointed, surreal quality of the play.

Sophie-CharlieAlthough there’s no program credit or reference to it in the script, "How to Disappear" was clearly inspired by the classic manual of the same name by Doug Richmond, first published in 1986 by the late, lamented underground publisher Loompanics Unlimited. In one the best scenes in the show, Charlie’s mentor, Mike, explains the techniques in detail. They’ve been updated — with references to SIM cards and Facebook — and slightly adapted for the U.K., but readers of the original will recognize the mechanics as Richmond explained them two decades ago. Whether they still work in these post-9/11, security-conscious days is debatable. Then, as now, it depends on who you want to get away from.

In Charlie’s case, it becomes increasingly clear that that’s himself.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Notes: Second-floor theater has no wheelchair access. Paid parking may be available at the Mobil gas station across the street.

PHOTOS BY RYAN BOURQUE

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