‘Wild With Happy’ at CENTERSTAGE

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When looking at it from the outside, grief seems endless. But grief is as unique as each individual person who experiences it, much like the individual experiences of joy we feel along life’s path. CENTERSTAGE journeys down life’s path to close out their 2013/2014 season with Colman Domingo’s Wild With Happy, a touching and heartfelt story that teaches us to find the joy in every day and make the best out of what life throws at us whether it’s death or Disney World. A modern fairytale of love, loss, and coping with the stages of grief this play will stir deep emotions to life and give audiences a taste of how wildness and happiness can exist in the face of world-ending sorrow. Directed by Jeremy B. Cohen, this performance has everything— including a little magic for the non-believers— to reach a wide variety of audience members on many levels.

Forrest McClendon and Stephanie Berry, Photo by   Richard Anderson.

Forrest McClendon and Stephanie Berry, Photo by Richard Anderson.

Creating a version of fantasy within reality is a task set in the capable hands of Scenic Designer Tony Cisek. The seemingly absurd notion that caskets are on display behind fancy drawn back red curtains at the funeral home blends the surreal feelings one gets when having such things forced into their faces during difficult times of grieving. Cisek’s true hybrid creation is his recreation of the Cinderella suite inside of Disney World; everything is gleaming and glowing with the joyous insane happiness that only the happiest place on earth can bring. Comparing this to the average normalcy found inside Adelaide’s apartment, Cisek creates a unique reality that could all conceptually be inside of Gil’s mind; as if the scenic design were a focal framing for how Gil experienced life, death, and grief.

Conceptually the play exists across the stages of grief as well as within the reality of the grieved; a complex notion of how the death of a loved one can further derail a life which is already wildly off track. Director Jeremy B. Cohen takes Colman Domingo’s words and transforms them into palpable feelings. Whether it is a sudden frozen moment upon the stage with a sharp fluctuation in the lighting, created by Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel,  or simply the clever blocking used with the two cars when they are meant to be chasing one another down I-95, Cohen understands the overall journey of the work and makes sure that all of the emotional highlights are covered and focused on with extreme intensity.

The acting from the four performers involved in the production is stellar all across the board. Emotions are heightened and the reality of grief settles into each and every character. The relationships formed, or more notably the strain of relationships in this play are what bring about touching moments of hilarity, heartfelt drama, and overall evocative, stirring moments that truly touch the soul. Each of the performers finds humanity within the characters that they portray; a reality that everyone can relate to on one level or another, making the story feel personal.

Mo (Chivas Michael) becomes a walking stick of dynamite; a true-scene stealer as he struts his stereotypical flamboyancy all across the stage. Upon entering Disney World it’s Michael’s “It’s A Small World” sassy dance and baton twirling shuffle that brings out the true vibrancy of his saucy and generally hyperbolic nature. Michael plays this incarnation of a stereotype into a caricature that works well in the niche Domingo has carved for him. The rehashing and debunking of famous fairytales in that flippant too-hot-to-handle attitude is to die for. Michael even finds raw moments of true vulnerability in the otherwise comically infused character; moments of tears and freshly unearthed buried feelings that bring his caricature persona down into a striking moment of reality amid all the circulating grief; a stunning duality within one performance.

Terry (James Ijames) brings a quirky and mild balance to the chaos of grief that swirls around in this play. As the off-beat, albeit chipper, funeral home director, Ijames’ portrayal of this young and influential character speaks to the notion that even in difficult times of overwhelming sorrow, a happy face can be just what life ordered to get you back on track. It’s his earnest approach to Gil (Forrest McClendon) that makes him loveable even in his moments of utter perky annoyance.

McClendon, as the show’s main protagonist, tells the story of loss while transitioning at his own pace through the marked stages of grief. Oscillating from a riled up and tweaked out nervous wreck of a mess to a raging bullet of ferocious unhandled feelings, McClendon delivers his interactions at the peak of his emotional threshold. Particularly when fussing up a storm with Aunt Glo (Stephanie Berry), the raw blasts of unprocessed emotional turmoil come spewing forth without preamble or apology. In those rare moments where he finds acceptance and peace with his character, McClendon is so focused and present in the moment that it becomes haunting to experience.

(l-r) Forrest McClendon and Chivas Michael. Photo by Richard Anderson.

(l-r) Forrest McClendon and Chivas Michael. Photo by Richard Anderson.

Berry, playing the sweet Adelaide and the feisty Aunt Glo, is a performing force to be reckoned with. Lively and vibrant despite what ails the character of Adelaide, Berry presents a simplistic woman that understands the ways of the world; a doting every mother type character that is reaching out to give and receive love to her relations even when the relationship is strained by time and distance. As the spitfire pistol Aunt Glo, she portrays the polar opposite in the cantankerous, boisterous and overall obnoxious character. The hysterics and theatrics that are raised to heightened stakes during the scene where as Aunt Glo Berry starts rifling through her late sister’s possessions are an absolute scream. But there are touching moments in her repertoire as well; the transitional shift between the two characters in the final scenes coming to mind.

A truly gifted piece of theatre, working hard to stir alive the emotions that often become trapped and withered during times laden with grief in our lives-Wild With Happy teaches a valuable life lesson with a healthy dose of comedy and pixie dust tucked between its scenes.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

Wild With Happy plays through June 29, 2014 Centerstage—700 N. Calvert Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.

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