The urge to create goes hand in hand with the urge to destroy and The Washington Stage Guild is creating a beautiful classic upon its stage with their production of Elling, a part of Norwegian novelist Ingvar Ambjørnsen’s Elling Tetralogy. Destroying the notion that classics must be dated, the Guild brings this touching comedy to life under the skilled direction of Kasi Campbell. Adapted for the stage by Axel Hellstenius in collaboration with Petter Næss and Simon Bent, the quirky story of an odd couple trying to overcome their social disorders becomes quite the series of madcap adventures for all to enjoy.
Scenic Designer Kirk Kristlibas brings hints of the main odd couple’s colorful personality into his design work, using vividly vibrant and busily patterned banners to hang in the background. These subtle decorating accents, which serves as the backdrop for both the hospital of mental health and every other scene in the production are a reflective representation of how normalcy can be anything you make it out to be and that having quirks and slightly irregular outlines does not mean that beauty and radiance cannot also thrive within those curious patterns.
Aiding the scenic work of Kristlibas is Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows and Sound Designer Frank DiSalvo Jr. Their combined efforts make transforming the atmosphere of a quiet indoor Norwegian apartment to a remote cabin in the woods near a lake an easy and believable task. Meadows brings darker subdued lighting for scenes outside at night and DiSalvo reinforces that notion with ambient nature sounds echoing gently in the underscore. Together the design team brings authenticity to the play’s various locations without overcomplicating things with unwieldy set changes.
Director Kasi Campbell understands the nuances of darker comedy and while this play is not a black comedy per say, many of the situational comedies that arise within it appeal to an acquired sense of off-color humor. Campbell also makes excellent use of the stage and its surrounding areas to broaden the play space of the actors. A poetry slam off in a raised corner of the house or the lake scene down in front of the proscenium adds variety and depth to Campbell’s vision, allowing for the audiences’ imaginations to take them on a fuller journey with these characters.
Taking on multiple female roles, actress Tricia McCauley varies her performance throughout the production until she lands in her final character of Reidun. Starting first as the efficient, albeit stern, hospital nurse, McCauley then shifts to the epitome of a bad modern poet exposing the miasma of her melancholy at the poetry reading. Briefly playing a saucy and oversexed strumpet of a waitress, McCauley lands her final character with a curious combination of depth and simplicity. The way she allows her burgeoning feelings for Kjell Bjarne surge through her voice and out her very excitable animated eyes gives the audience a true connection to her emotions.
Dylan Myers, in the role of social case worker Frank Asli, drives a much more rigid performance on the stage. Embodying the necessary ‘tough love’ qualities of someone in charge of another adult’s well being, Myers makes Frank Asli a character that is easy to dislike. Not completely bereft of compassion, Myers does find subtle ways of showing that his character’s outer bristling comes from a place of concern and duty.
Encompassing a unique role as a man that is more than he seems, Vincent Clark creates a fascinating enigma out of the Alfons Jorgensen character. Layering subtext and hidden motivation into each of his otherwise simplistically jovial scenes, Clark manages to turn a supporting character into one of great interest, particularly when the struggle of his true drive and his conscience bubble to the surface and decisions are forced to be made.
Kjell Bjarne (James Konicek) and Elling (Bill Largess) are essentially a modern, Norwegian odd couple with unspecified social challenges that leave them incapable of experiencing life normally and outside of the care of a facility. A great deal of the show’s humor comes from putting two such characters into a ‘normal’ outside situation and seeing how they cope and handle, or even if they are able to manage said situations. Mutually dependent upon one another, the characters’ relationships are intertwined in an inseparable state until they begin to grow and mature because of these situations. Konicek and Largess have impressive chemistry together upon the stage; playing well off one another in relation to the construct that their characters’ have created within the confines of their strange relationship.
Konicek has a childlike naivette that is ever present in his actions as well as his cadence. New discoveries, be them food or of the opposite sex, are like exciting new presents on Christmas morning, each one more magnificent than the last. The simplicity that Konicek imbues to the character is not without its charm nor does it limit his portrayal, if anything it intensifies the unnamed social disabilities that hinder his character’s daily functionality. Konicek demonstrates his understanding of off-beat comic timing, wherein a line delivered a tad too early or a tad too late results in a funnier situation than standard delivery could create.
Largess creates an exceptionally diverse character within the limits of Elling. His performance is formulaic in the most impressive sense of the word; every action, line delivery, and thought expressed aloud has a procedural approach to it, all driven from the again unnamed social limitations with which the character is hampered. Largess’ emotional expressions, though often reserved and delivered more subtly through his silences and analysis than overt outbursts, are raw and created from a sense of Elling’s vulnerabilities. His break down on his first trip out of the apartment his both harrowing and intense; a moment which will keep your attention quite thoroughly. The paranoia echoes keenly through his portrayal of the title character, easily displaced as the character evolves with a sense of purpose and creative rapture once poetry as an outlet is discovered.
Elling is an intriguing little comedy that is both heartfelt and humorous. Don’t miss Elling! It’s a perfect chance to enjoy quirky characters from all walks of life.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
Elling plays through May 18, 2014 at the Washington Stage Guild at The Undercroft Theatre -900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, in Washington DC. For tickets call the box office at (240) 582-0050, or purchase them online.