The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World
nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
June 5, 2011
As long as we have child performers, we will always have parents who stop at nothing to see their progeny achieve greatness. Or is their own greatness they chase? This need for relevance is at the heart of The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World. What makes the show so original is that we get to see this journey take place, as a father works through his daughters in an attempt to find his personal destiny.
The Shaggs were a sister rock group, formed in the late '60s in New Hampshire. Musicians they were not, and depending on which era you’re in, opinions regarding the band range from horrible to visionary. (Frank Zappa called them “better than the Beatles.”) The force behind the group belonged wholly to their father, Austin Wiggin, played here with enormous passion and depth by Peter Friedman. Austin loves his girls, but he’s angry. He’s yet to reach his destiny, and no amount of contentment with his family can fill the growing void inside. In real life, Wiggin firmly believed his mother’s prediction that his girls would bring him worldly fulfillment. In the play however, this superstitious element is not the focus. Instead, the writers smartly choose to zero in on Wiggin’s longing to matter before it’s too late.
The girls also have needs, and being rock and roll stars don’t seem to be at the top. Helen and Betty want a life their small town, and suffocating family dynamic, can’t offer, while Dot longs for her father’s affection. Dot’s craving is fully evident in “Don’t Say Nothing Bad About My Dad,” performed with a beautiful sadness by Jamey Hood. In “Impossible You,” Helen’s (Emily Walton) love for a neighborhood audiophile is belted out in an impressive combination of choreography, design, and performance. And as the self-assured Betty, Sarah Sokolovic is strong willed, as well as hilarious in her doo-wop number “Show Me the Magic.”
But in spite of the title, this play is about Austin Wiggin. He is The Shaggs, and they are him. At local performances, he introduces their concerts and hawks their album, and when they need a publicity photo, Austin has the camera. There is no job, or cost, too great to keep Austin from hearing his girls on an FM station. A weak, or just angry, performance in this role and the play has no core. In this current production, Peter Friedman provides this center, giving a full-hearted, deeply emotional performance. You get why his family is drawn to him, and willing to follow his dreams. But when the clouds come, and the disappointments mount, you also feel the fear that challenges anyone in his path. It is a tragic story, watching the dreams of Austin Wiggin devolve into madness, but what a thrill.This is the type of collaborative production that makes theatre so exciting. Everyone involved shines. The acting is engaging and fully present, Gunnar Madsen’s music is loud and thrilling, Joy Gregory’s book is hilarious and touching, and Mimi Lien’s set is by far the most impressive one I’ll see all year. I don’t know that an endorsement from Frank Zappa will make me a fan of The Shaggs, but in regards to this play, my enthusiasm couldn’t be greater.