Does your story matter? Will it be remembered and recorded in vivid Technicolor with all of the deep anguishing pains of its existence or will it be swallowed whole by the myth eaters and rearranged into a stronger, fluffier unimportant version of itself? Generous Company, in rotating residence at The Baltimore Theatre Project, presents Where The Whangdoodle Sings, a play by K. Frithjof Peterson that explores that exact notion of stories and their importance. With a semi-convoluted plot that ultimately surges through the five stages of grief and loss, though not necessarily in linear order; Peterson’s play is a unique, albeit at times confusing, approach to the way human beings immortalize the important events—mainly loss and tragedy— in their lives. Directed by J. D. Sivert, this is a fine production of an intriguing new work that formulates questions about the way humanity maps its existence through story.
Scenic Designer Kristen Prescott-Ezickson creates a highly compartmentalized set. There are three main play spaces: Voula’s tattoo parlor, Voula’s kitchen, and Benj’s stained glass studio. Prescott-Ezickson sets these apart from each other in a fashion that keeps them as individual spaces while still linking them into the overlapping plot arch that connects them. They are simply furnished, not quite minimalist, but the basic approach allows the performers and their larger than life characters to exist and breathe in the space more fully.
The stories between the two main protagonists at first overlap too much and then later don’t overlap enough, blurring the line between two stories that coexist within one another and two stories that are irrelevant to one another. Playwright K. Frithjof Peterson does an exceptional job, however, of defining the four characters in the production through their distinctive vocabulary usage. While there are no major plot holes or bumps in the story that throw it off kilter, Peterson’s work has moments that feel disconnected, like the heavy focus on Henry Aaron in relation to the mostly unexplained relationship that Voula had with her father. The play does make sense as a whole, but there are moments throughout that feel out of place.
Director J. D. Sivert focuses on the personal relationships that develop between the characters as they interact with each other and as they interact with the stories of their losses. The story takes a little while to get moving, the pacing is initially a bit sluggish, but once it picks it up it moves fluidly and succinctly to the intense conclusion. There are elements of mystical realism that the audience is expected to go along with— the notion of the Whangdoodle, for example, and the fact that Henry Aaron (or rather his likeness in myth-eater form) appears as some sort of spirit medium; but Sivert treats these elements like a natural part of the story and makes them flow seamlessly in the otherwise realistic world in which the play is set.
The four performers work together like an ensemble, each carrying their character’s story of individual strife while allowing it to meld into something bigger as a collective whole. Bad Henry (Will Carson) is the likeness and fictitious representation of Henry Aaron, appearing mild mannered and calm for most of his time on stage. Carson’s ability to transform the character from a subtle guiding spirit into an enraged eruption of intensity is astonishing. There is a moment late in act II that will have every fiber of your existence strung tightly on edge as you watch his explosive emotional tirade that has been building subtly in the background of the story from his character’s inception, finally come to a head.
The Whangdoodle (William R. McHattie) is a rather disgusting creature; self-described as damaged and shit-stained, the epitome of a struggling hobo (even if he is a mythological bird) trying to carve out a niche for his true existence. McHattie’s snarky approach to the character provides comic relief in this drama, giving the audience something to gawk at while also enjoying a few giggles. It’s McHattie’s persistence that drives the character to his more epic heights, grounding him in a reality that only he understands. The transition created once the Whangdoodle stops being an embittered soul, is shocking, and also hilarious as McHattie pushes forth the same blazing energy into his swear words as he does with the ‘cuter’ version of the character.
Voula (Ren Marie) and Benj (Jon Kevin Lazarus) comprise the story’s two protagonists. Their interactions with each other as impressive as they are when they interact with Bad Henry and The Whangdoodle, respectively. Each character has their own delusions, each character has their own trauma with which they most cope. Both Marie and Lazarus’ characters experience the stages of grief and loss differently, finding a semi-codependency with each other in their coping abilities.
Lazarus portrays more of an introvert, his character bubbling along in his existence, mostly calm until he isn’t anymore, whereas Marie is more of a spastic portrayal; spikes of emotional outburst that happen often, rattling her otherwise calm persona. The pair interact with resplendence, feeding off each other’s natural energy in each scene as well as their emotional peaks and valleys.
It is an unusual concept but there is much to be said for the hidden messages of life and loss, stories and their importance in this new work; definitely worth exploring with the Generous Company.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.
Where The Whangdoodle Sings plays through January 19, 2014 at Generous Company at The Baltimore Theatre Project— 45 West Preston Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 752-8558,or purchase them online.