A Real Boy: This Pinocchio is in Real Need of a Makeover.
I feel terrible that I’m going to write the things that need to be said here. The intentions for Stephen Kaplan’s A Real Boy, as directed by Audrey Alford (Donkey Punch), are admirable and coming from such a good solid place. He’s tackling racism, homophobia, bigotry, and everything else surrounding stereotypical ideas of those who are different than the ‘norm’. It’s a noble cause, and a solid idea to wrap these concepts up for discussion in a play where the minority, or the ‘other’ are puppets in a world where they interact with humans. The questions that arise by a kindergarten teacher about the validity of puppet parents raising a real boy parallels the very current discussion of gay parents adopting children, and how those children will be affected by the sexuality of their parents. Very powerful stuff, but it pains me to say, that this play and its production is a major fail on almost all counts.
A full F grade for A Real Boy, I hate to say. The play starts off well, setting up the conflict well, intriguing us to dive into the dilemmas brought forth by the overly concerned the teacher, Miss Terry, portrayed a bit too erratically ernest and dramatic by Jenn Remke. Her earnestness and the level of concern for the boy, Peter Myers, played by a far too quiet and unsure Alexander Bello, is not matched, rightly so, by Principle Klaus, a sturdy Jamie Geiger. A puppet parent/teacher conference is called, and the trouble begins to escalate. The puppet parents, played with varying degrees of effect by Brian Mitchel (Father Peter Myers) and an overly-quiet sympathetic Jason Allan Kennedy George (Mother Mary Ann Myers) don’t really resonate a great deal of emotional affect. The mother is given one very emotionally interactive scene, as written, but the puppets never seem to convey much that matches the words. As instruments designed by Puppet Kitchen Productions, Inc., they have a lovely look but don’t seem to be manipulated with much flair or connectivity, making it hard to get into the dynamics of the conflict.
The set designed by Ann Beyersdorfer (lighting by Jennifer Fok), does nothing to help with the engagement. Surprising, because her work on Afterglow although a bit clumsy (mainly because of probable financial constraints), was functional, uncluttered, and streamlined, everything that this show is not. An aisle down the middle represents the kindergarten class, while a raised puppet stage-like space that is the Myers’s kitchen takes up one end. I get the concept attempted here, trying to give us a Punch and Judy type puppet stage for the Myers to live in, but the size, spatial design, and structure all work against the idea. The kitchen feels crowded and clumsy with structural columns blocking the view for the majority of the time spent in that room with the Myers. Everything about the space, design, and construction work against the play making transitional moments overly long and tedious. Actors must make their way across the stage in order to get themselves in the right place for future entrances, and overly dramatic piano music is played during these extended intervals (sound design: Megan Culley). The numerous costume changes for Miss Terry seems pointless and adds to the already slow paced production (costume design: Tristan Raines), and the noise and distraction coming from back stage needs to be attended to. The attention to detail in the look of the kindergarten class, with the chalk board being changed during intermission would have been better spent making the space more functional and streamlined for the whole play. The look and design in that small theater really needs a different approach to make this piece flow and feel solid. Right now, the design only gets in the way, cluttering up and slowing it all down to a snail’s pace, making it very difficult to stay with the program.
As the conflict escalates, an angry and absurd lawyer, Jill Lambert, played by Katie Braden, and a self-righteous politician, Congresswoman, I mean, Congressperson Rebecca Landel, played by the odd and ever-changing accented Danie Steel (not quite sure what accent she was going for), does nothing to ground the insanity brewing. The two become insanely polarized aggressors in this battle, similar to the antics we see in this country’s Senate battling over morality within the Federal Government. A great comparison, especially when we think of Republicans like Ryan and Pence running up against the Liberal lawyers of Lambda Legal and such, it’s just a shame the text, especially in the last ten minutes, squander all the possibilities of making a clear and concise point. It feels like the last scene was supposed to carry a great deal of emotional weight, but the cutting of strings to the earlier ideas left us scratching our heads as to the prime motive and what the playwright is trying to say. It almost feels like self-sabatoge of the original construct, and although played by the acting team as serious and heavy, the power is squandered and lost.
I truly wish I had much kinder things to say about this production. I feel the company’s compassion and dedication to the project and its ideals. It pains me to rail in the negative when the original concept had such great and meaningful intentions. But this show sunk down to the bottom of the tank with each passing minute. This play needs a good strong edit down to a more manageable 90 minutes, a tightening up of movement, blocking, and direction, and a complete revision of how to stage such a piece. The puppets themselves need to be more inventive and engaging (maybe Basil Twist could lead a helping hand) but above all, the ending needs a serious deconstruction by the playwright. What are you really wanting to say in the end? Is this a wonderful reverse twist on the story of Pinocchio, or is it about a schizoid personality split and a discussion on mental illness? I thought I knew but left confused.
My companion that night made a great point once we had left the theater. He and I have seen some amazing theatre together at 59E59 and beyond, and his bravery in unique ideas and choices have lead him to accompany me to some incredibly bizarre shows, but also some less than wonderful productions. He was unfortunately my companion the night I went to the worst show I’ve seen and reviewed called MYTHO? Lure of Wildness. It was a disaster made by a woman who is stuck in the far gone period of abstract theatre that had flourished in the East Village in the 1970’s or 80’s. She lacked originality and cohesiveness, while trying desperate to be inventive and shocking. It did not work. To quote my companion who witnessed both, “Mytho didn’t need to be made. A Real Boy just needs to be made better.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.