Freedom! and the Sticky End of Make-Believe
nytheatre.com review by Jon Stancato
August 11, 2007
With roller skates, stilts, post-modern dance breaks, recitative dialogue, and soliloquies composed entirely of sound-effects, the multi-talented and disciplined ensemble of the Savannah Theatre Project impresses with their versatile use of a wide range of storytelling techniques. However, Freedom! And the Sticky End of Make-Believe suffers from a problem which lies in its title: too much dramaturgical freedom makes it impossible for the audience to believe in the world that this skilled creative team has devised.
From what I was able to gather from this fractured narrative, Thom Pasculli's play centers around two families, each offering dichotomous models of engaging with the real: one, a classic image of patriarchy under the leadership of Jack, prioritizing sacrifice, obedience and discipline over the values championed by the other, matriarch Mildred and her adult son Salvatore, who celebrate the transformative powers of imagination and the arts. When war breaks out, Jack's 13 year-old son Conner has been selected to begin training to defend his nation at the State School for the Development of Young Men. As the date for his departure looms, his relationships with his younger sister Carly, Mildred, and her son Salvatore, all of whom oppose their society's bellicose spirit, grow strained.
As I mentioned above, this coming-of-age story is bent through the prismatic lens of no fewer than a dozen different minimalist performance and narrative styles. There are some winning moments to be sure, as when young Conner dreams of being as tall as his father (Pasculli on stilts), a delightful parable about the Pope asking the Catholic people for a heart transplant, and Carly's teddy bear named God (who, of course, abandons her at one point). Unfortunately, the play's central thesis of "Make believe not war" is undercut by the simple fact that the realm of the imagination is theatricalized with far less imagination than the brutalities of the real world. As an audience, it's difficult to see how the staid and dull Duncan-esque dance lessons that Mildred offers Conner are more fulfilling than the far more vibrant dance sequence Jack initiates to show his son what military life will be like. While in such a devised production, it's nearly impossible to distinguish between the work of the director (Allison Talis) and that of the playwright, especially when the latter is also the lead performer, both direction and text, neither of which appears to seek obfuscation, could invite the audience into their world more by developing a clearer sense of the rules of said world.
The actors visibly exert a tremendous amount of energy to pull off the physicality and precision demanded of them, but to what end? Such athleticism, while often breathtaking to watch, often only further distracted us from the simple storytelling necessary for us to care about the struggles these characters face. When stripped of these trappings (and in some cases, much of their costumes), Pasculli and actor Jeremy Pickard (who plays Salvatore) deliver nuanced affective monologues directly to the audience, sharing the human element which all of the production's other performative pyrotechnics lack.