Theatre Review: “The Storytelling Ability of a Boy” at the Phoenix

Last Thursday I drove to downtown Indianapolis to see the Midwest premiere of “The Storytelling Ability of a Boy” at the Phoenix Theatre.  It was written by Carter W. Lewis and directed for the Phoenix by Bryan Fonseca, assisted by Raphael Schwartzman.

As with just about every show I see at the Phoenix, I loved the layered-ness of it.

What the Show Is About

Well, on the surface it is another one of those “gifted outsider kids help and are helped by the compassionate outsider teacher” pieces.  On the surface it is about bullying and writing and sexual identity, which is a lot.

However, beneath the surface (which is the place I love best) it is also about story making – i.e., truth telling – versus lying.  It is about the power inherent in the stories we tell, not just write.  It is about the collaborative nature of human storytelling and its potential for both destruction and healing.  It is about the importance of both seeing and being seen, of hearing and being heard.  It is about the power of friendship and love.

Beneath the surface, there are some surprises.

Purely in terms of plot, it is about a divorced English teacher that thinks she can escape her own story by changing jobs and moving to a rural area.  She sees a special giftedness in Peck, one of her new students, and makes some well-meaning but poor choices about how to help and protect him from bullies and other students, including his wild friend, Dora, that she thinks will get in his way.  Both cows and coyotes play important roles as metaphors.

Artistic Considerations

Some parts of this piece hung together better than others for me and although I felt engaged right from the beginning, I didn’t feel “transported” (or get a “theatre high” or whatever you want to call it) until the end.

I think this is because the language in the script is sometimes very literary, and it must be hard for the actors to make it sound as if their characters are making up their dialogue in the moment rather than reciting something that was written before it was spoken.  

On the other hand, it might have been my fault.  I finally had to tell myself to stop writing down every lovely line that resonated with me because I was spending the whole play scribbling in the dark!  I think I even missed one of the kisses!  Drat.

Or maybe I wasn’t transported at first because for the first 2/3 of the play I thought it was “just” a well-done show about writing, bullying, and sexual identity. 

Maybe it took me that long to see that the story was not where I thought it was.  Or at least, not only there. 

(“The story is in the cello,” says Peck at one point.  I.e., it is not in the obviously forbidden underwear drawer, although of course you have to check that out, too.)

In any case, for me the ending transformed the play into something more and brought it all together in a satisfying way.  “Ah, I love this!” I thought during the last few lines of dialogue.  Best of all, I woke up the next morning still thinking about this play.  I would like to make time to see it again. 

Also admirable is the fact that I don’t think the play will become quickly dated, as so many plays about teenagers do.

The three actors do a great job of bringing the characters to life.  Carrie Schlatter plays Kaitlin, the tightly-contained teacher of English, theatre, and “anything else that gets ignored on Career Day.”  Shane Tarplee plays Peck, the virile-fragile young man that understands better than Kaitlin that poetry is “a rebirth, not a recipe.”  Abigail J. Hart plays Dora, the relentlessly unlikable (at first) young woman that is truly Peck’s best friend.

Bernie Killian’s set delighted me from the moment I walked into the Frank and Katrina Basile theatre space in the basement of the Phoenix.  The floor is painted to look as if a giant, splotchy black-and-white composition book is lying across it. I use that kind of notebook myself to take my theatre notes in!  But I was delighted even more when, after the show, during the Theatre Community Day reception, Bernie whispered to me that “no one during the whole rehearsal process has realized that the floor is also a cow.”  It does look like a cow’s hide, too!

Bernie’s set design and Nolan Brokamp’s lighting design cleverly establish several convincing locations on the tiny stage – a classroom, a porch, a hill, a school hallway, and more.  Andrew Hopson’s sound design elegantly enhances the moods and settings further with angsty-metallic music, classical cello music, wind, chimes, bird songs, and more.  Ashley Kiefer’s costume designs perfectly enhance the three characters’ personalities and lifestyles.

Director Bryan Fonseca is also the show’s producer.  Anthony Morton is the stage manager.  Nolan Brokamp is the technical director.  Cody Grady is the light and sound operator.

By the way, I love the additional good food for thought in this video interview with the playwright from when the play had its world premiere at the Florida Stage in 2009:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Qa-ezduUqM

Audience and Appeal Factors

The language and other content make this a show for adults and older teens, not little kids.  (But speaking of the language, I love that when Kaitlin scolds Peck for using curse words, he defiantly and creatively changes “shit for brains” to “silt for brains.”)

This show would be a great company outing followed by discussion for people that work with teens.  It is also a good show for writers and wannabe writers.  It is also a good show for any people that like to chew on their entertainment.

Box Office

“The Storytelling Ability of a Boy” runs Thursdays-Sundays at the Phoenix Theatre through March 27, 2011.  Below is the full box office information from the press release that Phoenix Marketing and Media Relations Director Lori Raffle emailed me along with the pre-production photos you see in this post.  (Thanks, Lori!)

All seating is general admission on a first-come, first-served basis and all Thursday tickets are $15, thanks to a grant by Duke Energy; Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances are $25. Performance times are: Thursdays at 7pm; Friday and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Doors open ½ hour prior to curtain for seating. The Phoenix Pub, located inside the theatre, offers beer, wine, soft drinks, coffee, and bottled water, as well as treats, and all refreshments may be taken into the theatre and consumed during the performance.

For more information about any Phoenix productions or to purchase tickets, call the Phoenix Theatre box office at 317.635.7529. Tickets may also be purchased online. The theatre’s website is www.phoenixtheatre.org.

The photo above was taken by Julie Curry.  The actors are (LtoR) Abigail J. Hart, Carrie Schlatter, and Shane Tarplee.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

P.S. – Follow me (@IndyTheatre) and/or the topic #indystage on Twitter.com.  I never tweet during a show (and I beg you not to take your phone out during a show either, for any reason!) but I often tweet first impressions during intermission or immediately after a show.

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