At their best, fairytales allow adults and children alike to gently explore lessons of life, love, and loss, while safely ensconced in a cushion of abstraction. At their worst, they enable us to paper over loss and disappointment and avoid true engagement with the world around us.
Rorschach Theater’s powerful production of Stephanie Zadravec’s The Electric Baby examines the power of modern fables, as five strangers bonded by tragedy swing between extremes of stubborn self-delusion and painful acceptance.
The play opens on a stage dominated by a giant dreamcatcher and anchored by a glowing baby crib at its center. Betsy Zuck’s scenic design quickly establishes a sense of wonder and other-worldliness, not unlike the image of Cinderella’s fateful spinning wheel sitting alone in a moonlit attic.
Narrator Jennifer J. Hopkins, playing Eastern-European mother Natalia, welcomes the audience with a fourth-wall breaking monologue. Hopkins does the typical “no cell phones” routine while in character, establishes the power of myth and tradition, and hints at the special significance of the infant in the crib. Hopkins is at turns warm, cryptic, and disarmingly funny, due in no small part to Zadravec’s strong writing and character development.
Soon we meet bickering married couple Reed and Helen, (William Aitken and Cam Magee). Helen is beside herself with anger following an unwelcome surprise at party for their son in law, despite the Reed’s best efforts to calm her. Zadravek’s dialogue subtly teases out a tragic loss in their past as the source of ongoing dysfunction and marital strain, without burdening the pair with too much backstory. As Helen storms off, it’s clear the relationship is not long for the world.
Enter Abimbola, a quirky, relentlessly optimistic taxi driver, (J. Shawn Durham). After sharing his long-held dreams and psychic motivation for playing the lottery, Abimbola is joined by a pair of young waiters fresh from a confrontation at their much-loathed restaurant. Sarah Taurchini dominates the conversation as the wonderfully profane Rozie, while Kiernan McGowan plays it soft as the stuttering Dan. That they are linked at the wrist by a fuzzy handcuff only increases the scene’s comic absurdity. Abimbola engages in a great back and forth with Rozie over his staunch no-cursing policy, illustrated on a laminated neon sign. And then everything goes sideways.
The Electric Baby
closes May 15, 2016
Details and tickets
After a thundering crash and blackout, the cast reappears in various states of distress. Reed cradles an arm sling, Helen and Rozie sit numb with shock, Abimbola lies on a hospital gurney, Dan is nowhere to be seen, and Natalia nervously waits at home. As details of the accident come into focus, legal, emotional, and existential implications ripple outward and upset their tidy little lives.
The characters desperately try to pick up the pieces, exposing raw, painful truths in the process. Aitken and Taurchini, in particular, are marvelous as they slowly uncage emotions buried beneath years of self-delusion and medication. As the play reaches its end, Hopkins delivers an emotional gut-punch that rocks the play’s central narrative pillar, underscored by Katie McCreary and Nate Collard’s inventive lighting design. It’s a stark reminder of the limits of folk tales and myth to shield us against the sharp shoals of reality.
Electric Baby is not all dour. Zadravec peppers in timely humor that regularly pulls the play out of its emotional well. Director/producer Randy Baker and company have made something special here, forcefully reminding the audience that it’s never too late to embrace life in all of its absurdity, fragility, and beauty.
The Electric Baby . Directed by Randy Baker . Written by Stefanie Zadravec . Featuring William Aitken, J. Shawn Durham, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Cam Magee, Kiernan McGowan, and Sarah Taurchini . Assistant Directed by Paul Lysek . Stage Managed by Linz Moore and Sophie Barden . Lighting Design by Katie McCreary and Nate Collard . Costume Design by Frank Labovitz . Scenic Design by Betsy Zuck . Sound Design by Thomas Sowers . Production Stage Management and Props Design by Debra Kim Sevigny . Produced by Randy Baker and Jenny McConnell Frederick for Rorschach Theater . Reviewed by Ben Demers.