It was Jack and the Beanstalk, by Deduction Productions. Though the company's been performing at regional schools for three years now, Jack was only the second production for public audiences. By the end of their Saturday matinee, I was thinking that I--and the rest of the region's critics--should cover children's theater more often. Because Lucas Penick, Cathy Fausett and composer Tray Batson's canny little script gives this gently warped version of Mother Goose more than occasional flashes of the same comic sensibility that once illuminated a generation or two of Warner Bros. cartoons.
You remember: They did have a particular genius. They didn't condescend to their audience and they didn't moralize--at least, not overtly. They never forgot that kids were fast, sharp and already justifiably suspicious of the tropes of mass culture. And they were right. Instinctively, we children already knew that something in the nature of mysteries, game shows, westerns, commercials, monster movies, politics, love stories (yecch!) and much more begged to be satirized. Later, we'd learn that to lampoon was, in a way, to liberate.
Though such wisdom may have come surreptitiously through Chuck Jones, William Gaines and other errant latter-day saints, the true sentiment was perhaps best voiced by one of the first-generation Dadaist's, Hugo Ball: "Every word that is spoken and sung ... says at least one thing--that this humiliating age has not succeeded in winning our respect."
For those parents now reading with increased alarm, relax: Penick and company's gentle script lacks the cynic's bite and anarchist's agenda. What is vividly present in Jack is a clear memory of the arbitrary logic of childhood, and the degree to which all incoming cultural data can be co-opted to serve the imagination.
Gail Palmer plays Elsie--a talking cow on rollerskates and Jack's closest confidante--with confidence, wit and an accent reeking of magnolia. As Jack, Batson sternly directs her in the role he's just cast her, as a dragon. "OK," he says, "Be horrible, smelly, breathe fire--and don't forget to fly!" For her part, Elsie tries--but fails--to get enthused about a dish of "Cajun-grilled princess on a bed of greens."
If the children don't get all the references, the parents surely will. In Saturday's matinee performance, Jan Tu as Jack's mom bore more than a passing resemblance to Louise Lasser's character in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. The backward-masked guitar line in one song was tasty, as was Jim Nuss' Giant "Fee Fi Foe Fum" tribute to Shirley Ellis' "The Name Game."
After Jack goes to climb that beanstalk, his mom reads the note he left behind. As the Twilight Zone theme slowly comes up in the background, she flips through what looks to be a novel-sized manuscript and reads, in mock horror, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. It's the same sentence over and over again!"
In this world, the singing harp's a diva who may have opened for N'Sync, for all the good it does her now: Ever since the Giant captured her, her agent won't return her calls. The Goose of the golden egg seems to be channeling all five Marx brothers at once, with a little Jimmy Durante for leavening. If Batson's music is mainly pedestrian, at least it isn't sacred. At one point, the crew makes the taped music ground to a halt. "Now's no time for a song, Jack!" they chant. "You've got to escape!"
Nuss' wood and fabric set design is as imaginative as the script. All this group really needs now are bigger audiences. Their next planned exploit is an August production of Alice in Wonderland. Given what they know from Jack, I'm already wondering what we'll see.
They're all clearly courting disaster: that liquored-up, unsuccessful businessman who always lets a high school buddy goad him into a graphic revisitation of his track-star glory days; the copywriter who literally greets mortality with a martini and a cigarette; and the hare-brained urban swimmer who chooses to navigate his way back home through each of his neighbors' swimming pools.
So despite director Matthew Spangler's optimistic program notes, I still have a hard time seeing how mid-century novelist John Cheever particularly "ennobles" any of the characters we encounter in Shady Hills in order to "recognize the heroism in everyday life."
The four short stories Spangler has artfully adapted in this current Wordshed production are cautionary social satires on the 1950s upper-middle class. Still, they're largely populated by cowards unable to articulate their inner fears and damn-fools so intent on keeping up appearances they all but nominate themselves for extinction.
Heroes they ain't. Only one in the whole bunch seems able to actually learn from her experiences. Cheap hubris and the banality of contemporary culture--and its inhabitants--fells the rest of Cheever's protagonists.
Which is why I'm thankful that program notes are sometimes one thing and productions are quite another. If I can't entirely endorse Spangler's literary analysis, at least I can praise his production. Clearly, Cheever's satires work best when their characters think of themselves as tragic heroes, no matter what we're thinking of them. This circumstance reaps comic dividends throughout this rewarding production. Spangler and his talented company delve deep into a 1950s urban discontent that resonates with the acquisition-mindedness and the fresh insecurities of today.
After Maria Chrysanthou's costumes make Jordan Smith look like a Daniel Clowes refugee in a brief prelude, the company reprises "O! Youth and Beauty," from a festival performance last year. Spangler is strong here as Cash, the hapless former track star doomed to pursue yesterday's glories. Sarah Kocz, a recent Wordshed addition, was noticeably strong throughout the night, starting here as Cash's stoic, squelched wife, Louise.
In "The Death of Justina," Georgia Martin gives a crisp interpretation to M, a central character trying to give up smoking and drinking during the sudden death of her husband's aunt. When M gradually realizes that the government, the advertising media and her boss don't have her best interests in mind, she learns to outsmart them. In the work's final, haunting silence, we're left to wonder if she'll ultimately apply the same wisdom to the remaining addictions in her own body.
"The Wrysons" was a memorable vehicle for Smith and Kocz as a stuffy, boorish upper-crust couple intent not only in keeping up appearances with the world, but with one another. As in "Justina," the characters in this work are haunted by threatening, surreal dreams that cannot be disclosed. Cheever's plot twists almost seem to mimic O. Henry's at points, before turning once again. Smith and Kocz mine rich ground here, and deliver some of the strongest work I've ever seen from both.
In the evening's closer, Chris Chiron effectively explores the hubris and physical vulnerability of the title character in "The Swimmer," a work in which Cheever's social criticism takes on overtones of Ambrose Bierce--if not Rod Serling. A grim close for an evening of laughter, much of it at our expense. Recommended.
Contact Byron Woods at byron@indy week.com.