Saturday, December 6, 2008

Theater Review: Onward, Forward

All photos are from the Internet with some credits

Text by Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen

Onward, Forward, written by Michael Weems and directed by Karen M. Dabney, is the third Little Hibiscus Theater Company production I’ve seen this year, and it still continues to be worth the while. The summary of the play is stated as follows:

Onward, Forward is a comic look at the ongoing relationship between Joe, a disgruntled folk singer dying to rock out and his songwriter/manager, Ryan who searches for a cure to life in the offices of whichever doctor his insurance will allow. Their frustrating friendship is put to the test in suburbia where what starts as a typical gig leads to encounters with a sharp witted single mother, a sorority girl looking for a way to entertain herself for the summer, and parents that seem harmless on the outside. As their musical pit stop gets extended, Joe and Ryan find themselves in a situation that threatens to make them lose who they are and who they want to be. With a stellar cast (Bill Bria, Rachel Dorfman, Whit Elliott, Gregory Taft Gerard, Alixx Schottland, Michael Weems, Theodore White, and Shuo Zhang), Onward, Forward provides a humorous and moving telling of a story about staying in touch with reality, valuing friends and family, and knowing when to let go.

Theater information and dates are listed below.

Though not a musical, this play is definitely about music, and its effects and affects - directly and indirectly - on its eight characters.

[Michael Weems; photo by Brooklyn Scalzo]
The lynchpin and central foundation of the play is “Ryan Franklin,” played by the piece’s writer, Michael Weems. While the story revolves around him, he is drawn as someone not locked down to anyone or anything. One may be inclined to call him a slacker, but that is not entirely accurate. Ryan is more socially unhinged and has coped with various methods, rather than letting everything go. Michael portrays Ryan with a bit of a monotone and a bit hunched over. He is a big teddy bear of a man that one cannot help but like, and while he appears to be like a deer in headlights, actually he is managing not to get hit. One of the ways he does this is by staying in the cultural shadow.

[Bill Bria]
If Ryan is the shadow, his front is Vermont singer-songwriter “Joe Tully,” played strongly by Bill Bria. Bill is called a “dick” at one point in the show, and yes, he is. Though he is the extroverted face of the two, as Ryan writes the songs that Bill not only sings, he also has no clue what they are about because he is so emotionally stunted and blocked off. In fact, he even criticizes Ryan for how emo (my word) the topics are, because honestly, Joe wants to rock out. While the character is a bit of a cliché, with the boozing, womanizing, and being a, well, dick, he has a process in this story, and Bill keeps the audience emotionally tied to whatever phase his character is going though. Bria is definitely one of the strongest actors in an already good cast.

[Whit Elliott; photo by Brooklyn Scalzo]
When Joe (and therefore Ryan) get a summer-long gig in a run-down bar, they meet a pair of women that will change their lives. Whit Elliott plays single mom “Cara Rawley” as down-to-earth, and a bit reticent and bitter, yet enough to convey the emotions without isolating her from the audience. She is hesitant to open herself up, and even becomes a little jealous when a character shows some attention to her (unseen) daughter. She plays a catalyst role for more than one character to help them get on with their lives. Whit downplays her, which is actually appropriate, as her character is as walled as Ryan, but for her it is fear based from too much experience, rather than his fear/lack of it. They are two sides of the same coin, much like Harvey Dent’s two-sided coin that one side is mint, and the other is scarred.

[Shuo Zhang]
The other woman of the four leads is “Lauren Clayton,” played quite energetically by Shuo Zhang. Lauren is an OMG! kinda rich daughter sorority girl, who is more than she first appears. I must add that Shuo manages to take what could have been a very cartoony and clichéd character and made her into a full individual. Also, considering the type person Lauren is, Shuo imbues her into someone totally likeable, and makes the audience care about her. While she “grows” the least of the four main protagonists, she is also the one who gets the most of what she wants by using what she has.

[Rachel Dorfman]
Rachel Dorfman plays Ryan’s out-there therapist, “Dr. Stacy Alder.” This part is well written, as a way to call-and-respond with what Ryan is experiencing (i.e., she is sort of his inner monolog, if this were a novel). Despite all the strangeness that goes on in sessions between her and Ryan, Rachel never takes the easy, comedic road of goofiness, and gives her doctor very strong warmth. When she smiles or shows frustration in character, even her eyes show kindness and caring.

[Alixx Schottland]
As Mrs. Clayton (why was she not given a first name, I hear a feminist in my head ask), Lauren’s mom, Alixx Schottland plays her as smoldering and sexy. She shares much with her daughter, in that the pool is deeper than can be seen from the surface. Alixx is effective in the role, making her fierce when it comes to those she loves. Amusingly, the way Alixx kept throwing her hips when she walked, I’m glad she didn’t fall off her heels, which was good because the slink certainly worked for the character!

[Gregory Taft Gerard]
Matching Mrs. Clayton’s conniving is her husband, “Dr. Ralph Clayton” (see, even he has a first name!), portrayed by Gregory Taft Gerard (he even has a middle name, LOL). He comes across as a bit goofy and “Mr. Roper”-ish, but again, there is certainly more there. Gregory plays him almost as two separate people, sort of a good-cop/bad-cop, but manages to make them both be obviously from the same root. He also makes it clear that the doctor loves his family, and will stop at nothing to make sure that they are secure.

[Ted Reeves]
Rounding out the cast is Ted Reeves, who plays the bar owner and a long-time Clayton family friend/sycophant, “Ted White.” Much like Dr. Adler, he is there as both a sounding board and catalyst to the action. Ted really seems to be having fun playing Ted, getting to be drunk, angry, menacing, and sometimes kindly. He’s the underling who is a keen foundational character. I also smiled at Ted’s impromptu whoop at the end of the curtain call.

In case I haven’t made this clear, this is a well-written play that could have, under bad direction, been filled with over-the-top and clichéd performances, but with fine actors and under the able direction of Karen M. Dabney, it is about the story and the people, not about mannerisms and being clownish. I would also like to give a nod to Karen in making the place work in that particular space. The small Beckmann Theatre is oddly shaped in that it is long and narrow with the stage in the center being square at floor level, with the seating on risers on both sides. The blocking is well done so that cast members move around the set in ways that they face both sides of the audience without being too obvious.

Lastly, I’d like to talk about the canned music while the sets are being changed. I noticed a lot of ‘70s music, such as various cuts from Bridge Over Troubled
, Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind,” and Jewel’s “Who Will Save Your Soul,” but what I was most impressed by was the cut at the end, the totally appropriate “Are You Happy Now,” by the way underrated Richard Shindell. I’m not sure if that was Karen or Michael’s choice, but it made me smile and I wanted to acknowledge that.

American Theatre Of Actors - Beckmann Theatre
314 West 54th Street (between 8th & 9th Ave), New York City

Through December 7th, 2008 Performances At 8:00 PM
December 6th, 2008 Additional performance At 2:00 PM

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