I almost hesitate to even mention this production has an agenda – because, honestly, what production doesn’t? Any theater production that isn’t trying somehow to prod you to think about something in a slightly different way than you had before isn’t doing its job. But one of the things I admire most about this plucky little production is that it doesn’t feel the need to beat you over the head with its overall point. What’s the overall point? That it’s no big deal. Gay kid, straight kid? Doesn’t matter. A mom and a dad, two moms, two dads? Doesn’t matter. Sporty or arty? Doesn’t matter. We’re all human, we all have things we enjoy doing, we all need love and family and friends and if we need a theater production to remind us of the basics, well, then our lives have become a bit too cluttered.
There are days when I’m a bit slow on the uptake, so I was puzzling this morning as I looked at the program at the extra capitalized letters B U whenever they appeared in the title. “B U. What’s all the focus on B U? Did they all go to Boston University or something?” And then I saw the phrase, right there on the front cover “Just be you!” Wow. Staring right at me. I’m making this way too complicated.
And that, my friends, is their agenda. AWOL Productions just wants to strip away all the distractions and just tell a story or two. In “Fisher & The Fish,” young Fisher (Derik Iverson) is getting grief from both his parents and his fellow students for being into photography and watercolors rather than football. He bellows at his camera, “Why do I like you? You bring me nothing but pain!” and tosses it into the water, where a rapping magic fish (don’t cringe, just go with me here, a rapping magic fish – Andrew Waldron) is so delighted to receive a camera, that he grants Fisher his wishes to become more and more what everyone else wants him to be, and less and less himself. Of course, we know this will all turn around somehow, and it does. But the point isn’t that Fisher is gay, he’s just different. The sporty kids who torment him (Rachel Piersdorf, Kari Steinbach, and Becky Zierke) aren’t a bunch of lesbian softball players, they’re actors playing the jock/bully role.
I have to admit I drifted just a bit during “The Frog Princess” story. I’m not entirely sure why. Same set of actors, same style of storytelling. Not sure why I wasn’t as focused on that one but it didn’t grab and hold my attention in the same way. Here again, though, it was just a simple switching of genders, not a lesbian love story for the ages. Yes, a girl is kissing a girl to break a magic spell, but again, no big deal.
The script adaptation also makes a big deal of trying to overcome the whole “once upon a time” method of storytelling, but I don’t think they really needed to. It seemed to burn up a lot of time around the edges of the four stories that might have been better spent just telling the stories. Ultimately, they give in and use the tried and true opening and closing lines, and they still satisfy. So what’s the big deal? There’s no need to reinvent the wheel if the story you’re telling inside the conventions is new, and here it was. Sometimes being that self-conscious takes away from the task at hand. But the show overall works so well that it’s a minor quibble.
Another thing Mom and I both admired a lot about the production was just how smoothly it ran. (This, even though we started the evening needing to air out the theater because someone had started a fire in the dumpster outside of the Rarig Center, causing a lovely smell and some smoke to waft through the many levels of the building. Added bonus – firemen!) AWOL Productions had bundles of simple but effective costumes and props, most of them tucked away inside colorfully painted trunks with images from the stories, that enabled them to tell the tales without getting bogged down in scene shifts. Everyone was decked out in T-shirts of primary colors that got accessorized in simple but effective ways (a hat with a stuffed animal fish on it, a sparkly cape, a pair of glasses, a baseball cap).
They also handled audience participation in a smart fashion. Before the show, the cast perused the crowd and chatted up potential participants. Upon enlisting them, they gave them a postcard with their lines before the show even began. So no one was put on the spot in the middle of the show, no one had to be nervous. And since the audience participation portion didn’t happen until the last story, “The Mayor Who Outlawed Jellybeans,” several audience members had a little extra anticipation to carry them through.
My favorite story was the third, “The Golden Goose,” probably because it was the gayest, if only in the gentlest of ways. Taylor (Derek C. Waller) comes into possession of the title goose, which other people want, well, for the gold, of course. But their greed just ends up getting them all stuck together in some kind of ridiculous daisy-chain of limbs that turns into its own unintentional parade. The whole thing comes to the attention of the palace, and amuses the very glum prince (Waldron again), which pleases the queen (Zierke again) who had tried everything to get him out of his funk. The person who amused the prince gets to take him on a date, but the queen isn’t sure about Taylor dating her son. She invents a few extra hurdles which he clears. And even though she’s still not OK with it, the boys both shyly assure her that they are. Totally fine with it. And they’re both so adorably nervous and flirty with each other that you can’t help smiling. This could have been done purely for laughs, or with the actors winking at the audience as if to say, “I’m not really gay, I’m just acting.” But they didn’t. And good for them. That way of embracing the characters and their circumstances throughout all four stories, more than anything, drove their message home.
Mom was asked by someone later if the show was just for kids and she responded no, both kids and adults would get something out of it and be entertained. I agree. It didn’t feel like it was dumbed down, or over anyone’s head. Simple stories, well told, filtering the fairy tale conventions of the past through the way we live now. During their Fringe-For-All preview, I was wondering how this concept would work. Would it really be a “kids show”? Would non-kids enjoy it? Turns out the answer is a resounding yes on both counts. The enthusiastic whoops and applause from the audience at the end will back me up on that.
4-1/2 stars, Very Highly Recommended
NEXT PERFORMANCE – Saturday 8/7 at 1pm
(Then Sunday 8/8 at 2:30pm, Thursday 8/12 at 7pm, and Saturday 8/14 at 2:30pm – all very family friendly times. Enjoy!)
Fringe show #1 – Thursday 8/5, 5:30pm