nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 11, 2006
Tabula Rasa, a new musical by Henry Akona and Robert Lawson, attempts to tell three stories. One is about Emily, a teenage girl in the present-day who has autism, and the effects of her condition on her frazzled parents and her unhappy, jealous older sister. The second is a re-telling of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, generally faithful if somewhat contemporized: the children's mother dies, the father's new wife throws them out of the house, they eventually find their way to a gingerbread cabin in the woods where a witch captures them and fattens them up so she can eat them. The third is based on a true story, about Victor, a French child found in an asylum circa 1800 by a doctor who is convinced that he can socialize this wild boy, thought to have been "raised by wolves," by teaching him language.
In the show, all three are told more or less simultaneously, with action from two or even three of the tales occuring at the same time on stage. Emily's doctor in 2005 is also Victor's doctor in 1800 (and he seems to know that he's living in two different centuries, which is a bit confusing). There's also a character called "The Wolf" who appears in all three tales, usually as narrator and/or commentator, but sometimes in the guise of another figure such as Charles Darwin or Albert Einstein. (This is also confusing; and the anthropomorphized wolf is very suggestive of Sondheim & Lapine's Into the Woods, which works to this show's detriment.)
In the first act, the linkage among the stories seems to be purely thematic—the notion that the world where each individual child lives (the "blank slate" of the show's title) is valid and worthy of respect, regardless of how it seems to fit into our adult/civilized ideals of what's "normal." So Emily's universe, defined by her autism, and Victor's, defined by his lack of socialization, are both presented as being innately valuable, and the insistence by doctors and other authority figures that these children conform is seen as narrow, limiting, and cruel.
In the second act, the plots collide while the thematic focus blurs, with characters from all three stories ultimately coming together in a grotesque climactic dinner party scene. I think Akona and Lawson want us to think about the ways that parents stifle the creative growth of their children by filling their "blank slates" with all kinds of judgments and preconceived notions; but the scene itself, even intended as a sort of Grand Guignol fancy, is really hard to watch. The clashes of time periods, historical figures, and theatrical styles muddy things still further. There's a great contemporary musical theatre moment in the middle of it all, in which Emily's sister Deirdre sings a song about her resentments and anxieties. Otherwise, Act II has very little music in it, which is a disappointment because the first act, mostly through-sung, is quite lovely; Akona and Lawson's score is definitely one of the show's strengths.
In the end, Tabula Rasa has to be classified as a noble but very flawed effort; I admire the creators' ambition and intelligence, though, and their skill and moxie in mounting this gigantic show in a modest theatre festival are quite remarkable. There are some good performances to mention as well: Ilana Becker, who really takes us inside Emily's head in a couple of choice numbers; Kyle Groff, who does some of the same as Victor, though he's been given less to do; and Erik White, appealing throughout as the Wolf, in all of his various guises. Ben Trawick-Smith and Catherine Yeager do nicely in the very underwritten roles of Hansel and Gretel (it's never clear exactly how their story meshes with Emily's and Victor's), and Andrea Biggs has some affecting moments as Emily's mom.