Monday, July 18, 2011

Soldier's Daughter shows Dreamwell's pluck

by Andrew Juhl

Iowa City - I have been sitting here, staring at a blank screen for over 30 minutes. I keep writing and deleting the same sentence: “Dreamwell’s Soldier’s Daughter is an interesting show.” I keep writing the sentence because Dreamwell’s Soldier’s Daughter IS an interesting show. I keep erasing the sentence because it feels like damnation by faint praise. “Interesting,” however, is precisely what this show is.

Soldier’s Daughter is an original tale about a soldier's emotional connection with his 13-year-old daughter, Tigerlily. It opens with Tigerlily waiting for her father to return from his latest deployment in Afghanistan, hoping desperately that this homecoming will be for good. Asleep on the porch of her farmhouse, she wakes to find her father standing before her, ready to take her on a “story walk” around their farm, a tradition the two of them have shared ever since Tigerlily was very young. The overarching narrative progresses and unfolds via the stories Tigerlily hears, and sees, during their walk.

What makes this production so special is that the audience actually walks around the farm with Tigerlily, watching these stories and experiencing the overarching narrative develop against the backdrop of the bucolic midsummer Iowa landscape. Additionally, each “story” in the play was written by a different author, all members of a local playwriting group, the Black Doggers. The concept of a multi-authored piece of “promenade theatre” is both inherently intriguing and not without a conspicuous modicum of potential. I am pleased to report that Dreamwell makes respectable strides toward maximizing that potential in ways throughout the evening.

This was helped in no small part by some good casting for Tigerlily; young actress Makayla Phillips does a fine job of inhabiting the titular role. Although she is distinctly more believable in some scenes than others, this appeared to be more a consequence of the fractured writing style used to create the overall narrative than anything attributable to Ms. Phillips’ abilities. Specifically, Tigerlily is a page out-of-real-life as a popularity-obsessed tween in The Gypsy Story, fully realized and identifiable to anyone who either knows or has been an 8th grade girl. On the flipside, her dialogue seemed forcibly maudlin and redundant—though competently acted—in The Hope/Sarah Story, a scene about an imprisoned fairy and her captors.

Brian Tanner, as the Soldier, guided his daughter between and within scenes with workmanlike aplomb, though the character feels undeniably secondary to the journey, and—as such—both less important and less interesting than might have been intended. This could be a consequence/weakness of the framing story (Tigerlily and Soldier), which seemed to both lack focus and contain needless repetition as well as excessive platitudes. The characters of Tigerlily and Solider could have benefited greatly from a bit more bulk at the beginning and/or finale, whereas currently these two moments—especially the final scene of the evening—feel tossed-off in favor of “Yay, let’s get to the stories!” and “Hooray, we’re done with the stories!”

As far as the stories along the story walk go, an obvious stand-out is author Amy White’s Moose Story. The two moose in this story, actors Mark Nidey and James Anderson, have a wonderful chemistry and laugh-out-loud comic timing, but also the ability to effectively deliver the sobering denouement of the scene. Also very enjoyable were the aforementioned Hope/Sarah Story and the seafaring Tiger/Boy Story—though the latter suffered, in my opinion, from an underwhelming amount of pirates. But, hey, I’m a man who really likes his pirates.

The first two stories of the evening, however, were not-at-all as enthralling or interesting to me as the last four (and specifically the powerful ending trilogy of Moose, Hope/Sarah, and Tiger/Boy). To the point, I wasn’t entirely sure why these initial two stories were even in the play. The first story of the evening is The Aria/Coral Story about two magical sprites. I enjoyed actress K. Lindsay Eaves’ portrayal of ‘Aria’ a great deal; it was a one-note performance, but it was the exact right note, and it allowed Avonique Tipsword (‘Coral’) to play off of Aria very easily. The story is metaphor heavy—a conceit applicable to play in toto—but, more than that, the scene just didn’t seem to matter to Tigerlily’s overall journey. The Aria/Coral Story is immediately followed by perhaps the evening’s shortest scene, the Eros/Psyche Story, which seemed charily out-of-pace with the rest of the show and even contained a couple somewhat jarring anachronisms—though I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that both actors’ performances (Brad Quinn’s ‘Eros’ and Elizabeth Breed’s ‘Psyche’) were pitch-perfect and enjoyable.

Still, neither scene seemed like a story that a father would be telling his daughter, especially if that father was having trouble coming to grips with how his daughter was maturing. Specifically, I would have expected Tigerlily to exhibit more of a “Daaaaa-ad! Ewww!” kind of reaction to Eros/Psyche. (Upon later reflection, it occurred to me that the idea behind these two segments might have been that Tigerlily’s father first told a story that was too young for her, then one that was too old—but if that was the point, it shouldn't have taken me until two hours after the show to realize it.)

There are also three young actresses playing birds throughout the evening, portraying extensions of Tigerlily's emotions. This generally worked for me, but the idea could have used a little more explanation/exposition within the show. I almost wanted the birds to be onstage whenever Tigerlily was, but I can understand how that would be difficult with a trio of such young actors. Perhaps if each one had represented a more specific aspect of Tigerlily’s personality, this storytelling contrivance could have worked better; even as-was, however, these three young actresses brought a smile to my face whenever they came back into the story.

Summarily, Matt Falduto’s overall direction of the evening was apt, the costuming was never outlandish or distracting, and the promenades were never poorly spaced, nor did they seem inappropriately long distances to travel. The show ended as the last bits of sun were quickly fleeing the evening into night, and with 7+ stories performed, one would be hard-pressed to argue they didn’t get their money’s worth from the price of their ticket.

Contrary to my normal track, I tried NOT to read too much about this show beforehand, as I wanted to be as surprised as possible by the evening. Only after the show was over did I go back and peruse the newspaper articles my friends sent me, as well as some of the posts on this very blog. This may be a play that's best enjoyed when one has a sense of how much effort, collaboration, and passion were required for its genesis, and it simply may not be as gratifying or make as much sense to an audience without that additional knowledge. Regardless of that assessment, I would encourage anyone with a sincere interest in theatre to come see this production. Dreamwell has a reputation for producing exhilarating shows that merit observation based solely on the company’s dedication and pluck, and Soldier’s Daughter falls well in-line with that tradition.

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