nytheatre.com review by Stephen Kaliski
August 17, 2011
Keepers, an earnest medley of monologues and songs about the myriad human elements of adoption, presents a very gentle panorama of an issue that both benefits and suffers from such kind treatment. While the ensemble from What’s The Benefit (a company with an admirably charitable mission) deserves credit for investigating a deeply complex topic, this safe staging leaves us wishing that they had gotten their nails a little dirtier.
The broad sweep of this efficient collection suggests that all involved have done a sensitive, thorough job of approaching adoption from all angles. We learn what it means to give your own child away and to take an unfamiliar child as your own. We see true parenthood manifested in countless forms, from biological to adoptive to foster to surrogate. We hear the anguished tug-of-war from adoptees’ perspectives as they struggle between what they’ve been given and what, or whom, they were never allowed to know.
The program says that Keepers is “based on real testimonials collected from around the world,” locking the show into a performance style with a tried and true formula. The joy of this sort of theater, made famous by such artists as Anna Deavere Smith and The Civilians, is twofold: we love listening to the distinctly unaffected vernaculars of real people, and we love watching the actors bounce between these salt-of-the-earth personalities, transforming moment-to-moment through the magic of total commitment.
In this basic formula, Keepers is half successful. While we’re uncertain of the extent to which the book is directly culled from interviews and transcripts, the voices of these normal people feel a bit too manicured. Part of this is because of the original music by Daniel Wolpow and Paul Daniel Cloeter. Their mostly fine songs, including a memorable title number, are competently sung, but by heightening their characters into a musical theater medium, Wolpow and Cloeter compromise potential for gritty, compelling realism. The character Jeremiah feels like a living and breathing person until he launches into a jarring reprise.
This flattening effect is also in part because of the performances. The actors are intermittently terrific; Cloeter and fellow book writer Nicco Franklin make especially distinct impressions. On the whole, however, the cast doesn’t maintain enough specificity from number to number. A hyper-concern for dialects is a particularly frequent obstacle for the ensemble.
Director Chris Causer seamlessly guides his team through the piece. He occasionally finds simple, evocative gestures to root moments in a specific times and places, the kinds of choices that would have been welcome in even larger doses.
I appreciate the effort in Keepers to breathe theatricality into an issue too rarely explored on stage. For those seeking a compassionate, family-friendly FringeNYC entry to generate healthy dinner conversation, What’s The Benefit has offered prime material. But in certain ways, I wish Keepers could have been messier in execution. After all, real-life testimonials are messy objects, unfettered by prescriptive artistry. They begin to pulsate with theatricality at the exact moment that their curators refuse to soften them into theater.