Review: ‘SISSY Accompanied by Johann Sebastian Bach and a Mouse’ at The Catholic University of America’s Hartke Theatre

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If you can imagine a play that captures bits and pieces of The Wizard of Oz and Greek Mytholgy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a Tom and Jerry comic, then you will have some idea of what goes into Sissy, Accompanied by Johann Sebastian Bach and a Mouse, the rollicking fable now having a very brief run at The Catholic University of America’s Hartke Theatre.

Photo by Deb Sivigny.

The play, written by Garret Milton as part of the MFA Playwriting program in the Drama Department at CUA, literally cries out for an audience of children—especially children between 8 and 12—who love talking mice and scary stories about kids who manage to escape bad things.

While he doesn’t get top billing in the title, the Mouse, in this case, is the star of the show. Played with acrobatic gusto by Carson Collins, an undergraduate at CUA, this particular Mouse is a cross between the Cowardly Lion and Puck. A master of comic gesture, he twitches his nose and flicks his tail. (And yes, he also picks his nose and eats with his hands. That’s why children—and some grownups—will love him!) He urges the kids to rebel.

Although Sissy— named for Sisyphus, the character in Greek mythology who is doomed to roll a rock up a hill again and again for eternity—is slow to embrace the message, he is actually the most poignant character in the play.

Kevin Boudreau gives a moving performance as a young man trapped in a dead-end job, with a Simon Legree-like boss and a parent so paralyzed by grief that he cannot even pay the bills.

The evil boss, named Talus, is played with lip curling cruelty by Desiree Chappelle—a sophomore at CUA—who may be the scariest she-villain since the Wicked Witch of the West.

Named for another character from Greek mythology (this one a giant bronze robot), Talus is a raging bully who takes pleasure in humiliating people.

Carl Randolph—an actor who is studying for the MFA in Directing—is the widowed father. He alternates between silliness and sorrow. He never takes off his pajamas—a pair of Long Johns resembling a baby’s ‘onesies’—and wears a stethoscope around his neck to remind himself that, even though he is a physician, he could not save his own wife.

Rounding out the cast are Nara, a young woman who works with Sissy and competes with him for a promotion, and Wu, the janitor. Rachel Foley plays Nara with unaffected sweetness and purity, while Wu, is portrayed heroically by Benjamin Kramer Kwalick.

These two, who are both sophomores, provide some of the most poetic images in the play, particularly when they appear together in the same dreams.

Although the stage is small, Director Jenny McConnell Frederick creates a world of movement that occasionally spills over into the audience. Choreographer Carl Randolph has concocted some joyful dance numbers. One of my favorites involves a parade of monkeys and elephants.  Another is a lovely scene where father and son—abandoning their grief and anger—dance an Irish jig as they make bologna sandwiches.

The set, designed by Brian Gillick, is dominated by a giant tree with a ladder carved into its trunk. The tree, while apparently dead, is magical—capable of sending out shoots of flowers and raining down skulls. At the foot of the tree lies a reflecting pool that leads to a ramp.

A battered desk occupies one side of the set, designating the office where Sissy toils each day. A beat-up couch identifies the home to which he returns each night, and where he finds his father listening for hints of his mother’s voice through the floor boards.

The costumes are extravagant and original. Debra Kim Sivigny has designed some wonderful turn-of-the-century outfits for both the office workers and the Mouse, reminiscent of Victorian melodrama and the magic of “once upon a time.” There are some extraordinary masks, evocative of primitive religious rites. Wu and Nara shimmer silkily in their dream apparel.

Like the father in his Long Johns, Talus, the wicked boss, is laughable just to look at. She is pure evil, an enormously stuffed figure inside her fur collar and gleaming black suit. She looks like a lion tamer at the circus, waving an ax as she tries to tame her employees and decapitate the Mouse.

Lighting and sound, in this production, are as crucial to the action as the characters themselves. Katie McCreary has created a panorama of backlights and spotlights in blazing colors, depicting the moon and the stars and the mystery that lies behind it all.

Sound Designer Roc Lee amplifies the light with sounds that range from the Bach of the title to lullabys, blues and nursery rhymes, along with his own original music. Musical jokes abound. There’s a record-player that’s turned on and off, a trumpet and yes, even a toy piano.

Sissy is an entertaining and ambitious play. Its only shortcoming may be that it is too ambitious.

This is a play that tries to be too many things at the same time. It  is ostentatiously poetic as well as playful, and sometimes the poetry gets in the way of the play.

From my perspective—as a writer and longtime writing instructor–the first act is way too long. We need some exposition, but not an hour of it. The scene in which Sissy is bullied by the mean boss is harrowing and important. But the Mouse’s shenaningans at the beginning and the father’s repeated search for his lost wife can become tedious.

In fact, the play doesn’t really take off until the Mouse discloses his true identity.  It’s not until he joins forces, Peter Pan-like, with the other “lost children,” that the action begins. At two-and-a-half hours, the play rambles.  Cut to 90 minutes, it would much sharper, capable of delivering a lasting blow.

Stripped to its essentials, Sissy is a play about loss. It is about children who have been abandoned by parents who, in turn, have been lost to death or grief.  There are some powerful moments in this play. Trimming the first act would allow those moments to take center stage.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

SISSY, accompanied by Johann Sebastian Bach and a Mouse plays through February 26, 2017, at The Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre – 3801 Harewood Road NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the box office, or online.

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