Critic’s notebook: Reviews of ‘Love/Sick’ at Fresno City College, ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ at VISTA Theatre
A review roundup:
Through Sunday, Nov. 20, Fresno City College Studio Theatre
In Norman Mailer’s last novel, “The Castle in the Forest,” the narrator is a junior devil charged by Satan to mold the life of Adolf Hitler into the monster he would later become. An incidental observation made by the narrator – one that has nothing to do with young Adolf himself – has always stuck with me. It’s about love. As an immortal devil, the narrator has had the opportunity to observe romantic love many times. He can catalog its causes, witness its craziness and acknowledge its virtues. He can predict when love will happen, and he can even try to bend its rules for his own gain. But the one thing he can’t do is feel love. For him, love is like a sickness that he can expertly deconstruct and diagnose but can never truly understand.
I was reminded of this odd dynamic in playwright John Cariani’s “Love/Sick” at Fresno City College. In a series of nine vignettes, Cariani presents couples in various “stages” of love. Most of the couples are far beyond the incubation period and initial symptoms of love as an “illness.” (When you think about it, those symptoms really do seem like they belong on a doctor’s chart: racing pulse, shortness of breath, feeling tingly all over.) Instead, we get more into the idea of what you might call chronic love, if you will – the kind whose symptoms can transform over the years. Sometimes, in a paradoxical development, if you’re sick enough, those symptoms can even vanish.
Cariani, a Broadway actor (“Something Rotten,” “The Band’s Visit”), in 2004 wrote his play “Almost Maine,” another series of vignettes. It’s become one of the top-produced plays by high schools. (Fresno City College presented it years ago.) “Love/Sick,” which is newer, is built on the same vignette format focusing on couples experiencing love and loss, but this one is definitely darker.
Director Leslie Martin has fun diving into the material with a large cast (no actor repeats any roles), offering example upon example of couples whose relationships are either forming or fading. The vignettes range from the lightly absurdist to bleak realism. In one, a couple confronts their differing desires for parenthood while celebrating with a homemade birthday cake. In another, a man suffers a condition akin to hysterical blindness, except in this version, he can’t hear someone say “I love you.” In one of the saddest vignettes, “The Singing Telegram,” a man is forced to deliver a message to a singing-telegram recipient, and the lyrics are so caustic they sting. There are goofier storylines, such as in “Uh-Oh,” when a bored post-newlywed wife spices up her marriage by pretending to be a killer, but even there the laughs there are tempered by the wife’s proclamation of self-help profundity.
The acting is often quite good, with rushed lines perhaps the most common transgression. Strong performances include Vee Husted as the telegram man; Maria Hernandez as the bored wife and Jonathan Perez as her shocked husband; and Trinity DeLeon and Janessa Mendez as a couple whose well-planned life hits a momentary snag.
At the end of the show, a plum moment comes in the form of veteran performers tony sanders and Suzanne Grazyna as a couple whose past catches up with them in the produce section of the neighborhood superstore.
As for the show’s greater themes, it’s possible to walk away with a “better to have loved and lost …” optimism. (Or, if you’re a pessimist and without a mate, you’ll probably want to go home and immediately propose to Netflix.) Love might be one of the messiest parts of human existence. The only thing worse is not having it at all.
‘Every Brilliant Thing’
Through Saturday, Nov. 19, VISTA Theatre
Nick Haas and Camille Gaston of The Fools Collaborative alternate the starring role in “Every Brilliant Thing,” a one-person show based on a true story about a child growing up with a suicidal mother and trying to overcome depression as an adult. Writers Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe make the central conceit of the show – a numbered list devised by the child of all the things in life worth living for – into an audience exercise, with people reading numbered slips of “reasons to live” when prompted by the performer. The reasons range from the happy but mundane (I got “spaghetti and meatballs”) to esoteric (“the word plinth”), but all spark a cheery connection with the audience. A few individuals also get coaxed into the action to play various secondary roles.
The play has an important message about suicide and depression. (The Fools Collaborative offers literature about NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness). Haas struck a nice balance between whimsy and ache at the performance I saw, and director Miguel Gastelum keeps the action smooth and streamlined. And it’s nice to see the Fools back doing theater.
But the writing often feels self-help-book simplistic. Even with more than an hour of stage time devoted to the main character, he remained sort of hollow to me. From a technical standpoint, keeping a general light wash over the stage and audience makes it harder to escape into the theatricality of the experience and gives the outing an unfinished feel. I felt like I was in a workshop or reading.
Still, it’s earnest and hopeful, and we could use a lot more of that these days.
For another view on the production, you can read Diego Vargas’ take in the Fresno State Collegian.