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Theatre in Review: A Real Boy (Ivy Theatre Co. in association with Athena Theatre/59E59)

Jenn Remke, Alexander Bello. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

A Real Boy is a real muddle, a weird tale about the plight of marionettes that gets thoroughly tangled in its own plot strings. It begins with Miss Terry, a kindergarten teacher, worrying that something is wrong with Max, one of her charges. Max, it seems, draws only in black-and-white, because his parents don't permit him to use crayons in any other colors. A parent-teacher conference reveals that Max, a human, is the offspring of Peter and Mary Ann Myers, who are -- wait for it -- puppets. (Throughout the play, this generic term is used, which is odd, since the fact that these characters are manipulated by strings is central to the plot.) The meeting goes badly -- Miss Terry terrifies Peter and Mary Ann by carelessly approaching them with scissors in hand, and irritates them by noting, "I have many good friends that are puppets" -- and it irretrievably slides downhill over the issue of color crayons. It is only one of the many oddities of Stephen Kaplan's script that we never learn what the color issue means to Max's mother and father.

Anyway, things are tense in the Myers household, what with Max depressed about being taunted by the other kids, Peter upset that Mary Ann has sneaked a gray crayon into Max's backpack, and Max asking Mary Ann painful questions about the absent Grandma Maxine. ("She doesn't like puppets, does she? Did she like you before you were a puppet?") This scene introduces the issue of puppethood as a personal choice, an idea scrambled by the fact that, a few scenes later, Max starts involuntarily growing strings all over his body.

By this point, Miss Terry, citing her duty to act in loco parentis, has holed up in her classroom with Max, insisting that she will save him from Peter and Mary Ann, who, she claims, are abusive. Soon, a headline-grabbing lawyer (representing the parents) and a manipulative, grandstanding self-described "Congressperson" (defending Miss Terry) have joined the fray, and the story has become a national cause célèbre. Meanwhile, Miss Terry is in an advanced state of panic because, in addition to those strings, Max has begun to lose the use of his muscles.

In all my decades of theatregoing, I cannot think of another play that used its central plot device more awkwardly and to so little effect. In an otherwise naturalistic setting, we are asked to accept the presence of puppets as a distinct subset of society with jobs and families of their own, even though they are extremely physically challenged. (Mary Ann, for example, struggles to handle cooking utensils while making the meals that Max alone can eat.) At the same time, the fact that they are really marionettes manipulated by people is part of the concept, although not really discussed. Max, noting Mary Ann's extreme awkwardness in the kitchen, asks his mother, "Why don't you let the other part of you do more things?" We also learn that Max's human mother gave him up, letting Peter and Mary Ann adopt him -- so why is he turning into a puppet? The use of puppets as a metaphor is even blurrier; at different times, they are variously portrayed as part of a victimized minority, self-willed individuals who have chosen their state of being, and refugees from reality, living seriously hobbled lives.

The dialogue does little to provide clarity. Dismissing Mary Ann, who cooked up a little something for Max's birthday, Rebecca, the Congressional representative, says, "Do you really think a cake is going to earn you brownie points?" Jilly, the lawyer, noting that Rebecca has made Miss Terry into an Internet heroine, says, "She may be an idiot but she's very smart." Counseling Peter and Mary Ann, Jilly says, "You need to keep the media's attention. Work the human angle of it. You know what I mean."

The problems abound in Audrey Alford's production. The puppet characters, designed by Puppet Kitchen Productions, Inc., lack any sense of individuality, and Brian Michael and Jason Allan Kennedy George handle them inartfully; during the Peter-Mary Ann scenes, I found myself looking at the actors, not the marionettes they were manipulating. The performances are shrill and overwrought throughout, a clear sign that nobody in the cast has a clear notion of how to proceed. (Little Alexander Bello, one of two boys who alternate as Max, couldn't be sweeter.) Ann Beyersdorfer's set, which has the audience seated on two sides of Miss Terry's classroom, is clumsily laid out, with a narrow, raised playing area for scenes at the Myers' home that leaves the actors almost no room to maneuver with their marionettes in hand. Some of Tristan Raines' costumes are all right, but it's unclear why the lawyer and Congressperson are dressed like they've just rushed in from a cocktail party. Jennifer Fok's lighting is fine, and Megan Culley's sound design fluently blends various effects, including laughing children and a cacophony of television news reports; then again, the uncredited piano music heard in certain scenes sounds like the score from an old episode of The Bold and the Beautiful.

Kaplan tries to split the difference between his human and puppet characters in the finale in order to bring everyone together, but, as written, his solution is borderline incoherent. This sort of fantasy needs a rigorous set of rules if we are to accept it, but nobody involved in A Real Boy seems to understand that. Apparently, the play is saying it's a good thing to be a puppet. Or not. Or sometimes. Or only if you choose it. Whatever. Don't ask me.-- David Barbour

(8 August 2017)

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