Saturday, March 3, 2012

Desperate Struggles Make This Will Never Work Compelling

By James E. Trainor III
Photo by Sarah Burnett

Riverside - "What do you want?"

It's the classic acting-class question; you've heard it a hundred times if you work in the theatre. Occasionally "how do you feel," often "what are you going to do," but always "what do you want?"

There's a simple reason why: it's good storytelling. We relate deeply to underdogs with desperate plans, to square pegs trying to squeeze into round holes. Riverside's series of monologues, Walking the Wire: This Will Never Work, which opened on March 2nd, hits home with tales of characters overflowing with want and drowning in need.

With material written by Ron Clark, Amy White, Mike Moran, Gwendolyn Rice, Amanda Petefish-Schrag, Brent Boyd, Jen Silverman, Mark Harvey Levine, Dave Carley, Deborah Magid, Gordon Mennenga, and Janet Schlapkohl, and performed by (pictured, from left to right) Mike Moran, Fannie Hungerford, Jessica Wilson, Ron Clark, Katherine Smith, Janet Schlapkohl, Tim Budd, and David Busch, Walking the Wire: This Will Never Work offers a series of monologues in two acts that are sometimes comic, sometimes shockingly dramatic, and always compelling.

There are your classic climbs to the top, with varying degrees of success: in "Third," written and performed by Ron Clark, a big fish decides, very late in his career, to leap out of his small pond in Kansas and try to hack it as a middle-aged actor in Los Angeles. He doesn't want to be first place - he'll settle for third, or fourth, or fifth - but he wants it with all his being, and the feel is warm and funny, if a little bit sad. In "Toots," written by Gwendolyn Rice and performed by Jessica Wilson, a soon-to-be grandmother recounts her family's struggle and tells the story of her daughter's rule-bending interracial marriage - the product of which might seem vaguely familiar. In "Bert, One Year Later" by Dave Carley, with some great character work by Ron Clark, an old man deals with grief by watching ducks until a depressed teen by the river gives him an unexpected new lease on life.

Then there are those characters who are just stuck, doomed, or destined to fail; their stories are no less compelling to watch. In "Inner Child" by Amy White, a young girl, played with charming and heart-breaking accuracy by Katherine Smith, sits in the doctor's office and fantasizes about how her teen pregnancy could have gone differently. In "Shakytown" by Gordon Mennenga, performed by Tim Budd, a man recalls his big-city uncle who always promised to take him out of the dead-end town he grew up in, but never delivered. In "Lost in the Flood" by Amanda Petefish-Schrag, peformed with boundless energy and bitter humor by Fannie Hungerford, Noah's wife gives us a different perspective on the story of the Ark, as she tries desperately to save the majestic mastodons from extinction.

Then there are stories that take unexpected, sometimes tragic twists. In "Mia" by Jen Silverman, performed by Fannie Hungerford, a sixteen-year-old girl takes on the world, moving out to New York to live with her big sister and become a dancer. The reality of what she finds there is an ambivalent mixture of a romantic teenager's notions of the Big Apple and the worms that writhe within. In "Double Barrel" by Brent Boyd, performed with chilling calm and precision by Tim Budd, a man's carefully orchestrated revenge plot suddenly goes catastrophically awry. In "A Pigeon in a Dress," written and performed by Janet Schlapkohl, a pair of sisters are deposited into the standardized, cookie-cutter world of the 1950s, a world whose rigid expectations twist the girls both physically and emotionally.

There are plenty of examples of great storytelling in the writing, and the actors, under the expert direction of Jody Hovland, pursue these rash, sometimes ridiculous objectives with reckless abandon. All of the performers do an excellent job of interpreting the stories, and their physical choices often fill the stage, creating an entire world out of a ten-minute monologue.

Mike Moran, who writes, performs and sings in "In Hank's Brain," paces about the stage with the unchained anger of a spurned lover, until his temper tantrum takes him through a window, falling through imaginary trees, and right into Hank Williams' brain. It's a bizarre and infectiously creative concept, and Moran's acting executes it perfectly. A wild drop onto the stage and a change of cadence transports us suddenly into a different space, as the protagonist tries to tell Hank his troubles.

Fannie Hungerford is excellent in both her performances. In "Mia" she plays the energetic and nubile teen as realistically as the tired, regretful mother telling the story. In "Lost in the Flood" she fills the stage with apocalyptic energy, gathering invisible beasts with full commitment to the physical choices. The result is wonderfully comic.

Janet Schlapkohl's "A Pigeon in a Dress" creates a world most completely and remarkably. She performs not only the speaker but the speaker's sister, parents, teachers, classmates and everyone in-between with specificity and care. The story is inspiring and disheartening at the same time, as the two sisters each try to break the mold and become someone unique. Schlapkohl's wry humor and warm, impassioned vocal work endear us to the characters and make us sympathetic to their struggle. This one has the feel that it could be a larger piece; though the ending is appropriate to the story, there's a whole world that could be explored between these two sisters, and "A Pigeon in a Dress" leaves the audience craving more.

It's always a joy to see Riverside's annual monologue show, Walking the Wire, and this year is no exception. These stories of man's reach exceeding his grasp range from the restlessly funny to the shockingly tragic, all performed with the skill and care of professional performers. So what do you want? Tickets.

Walking the Wire: This Will Never Work runs through March 11th at 213 N Gilbert St. Showtimes are 7:30pm Thursday - Saturday, 2pm Sunday.

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