Saturday, March 7, 2015

Are you this big to ride this ride?: Theatre on the Square probes the darkly comic side of Shel Silverstein

In the vast amusement park of verse for children, a favorite attraction in recent years is Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends," whose title poem opens up the time-tested pathway to adventure that is one of the perpetual promises of childhood. In my distant youth, that road found me in "A Child's Garden of Verses," an old-fashioned evocation of innocence and wonder by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Successful children's authors often have another side — not far from the same resource that gives them the key to children's love of secrets, resistance to boundaries and the allure of forbidden places.  The current show at Theatre on the Square exposes that lesser-known aspect of Silverstein in bravura style, with those childhood traits subject to alarming mutations.

This is make-believe toughened by adult experience. "An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein," as directed by D. Scott Robinson and performed with outsized gusto by a cast of six, consists of 10 playlets of aggressive, often vulgar whimsy.

The show's style is bold, gesturally explicit, colorful, and quasi-improvisatory. If you can imagine Roy Lichtenstein's "Five Brushstrokes" on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art translated into sketch comedy and squeezed into TOTS' cabaret-like Stage Two, you'll have an idea what to expect.

These coruscating mini-dramas don't allow much room for error. On Friday night, some of the hyperbole struck me as off-key. Ryan Powell's obnoxious drunk in "Bus Stop" was so overplayed physically that the character seemed more afflicted with a non-alcoholic degenerative disease. Writhing and flailing so much while tipsy would end in collapse well before the punishment meted out by Stacia Hulen.

Dad (Robert Webster Jr.) messes with daughter's (Stacia Hulen) mind.
Each piece needs to jell instantly, and Robinson's actors almost invariably hit the ground running. Lewis Carroll's Alice made iconic the childhood traits of curiosity and candor. Shifted to the adult world, as Silverstein does here, these advantages become problematic. Grown-ups get manipulative about kids' curiosity, as in the spirited teamwork of Robert Webster Jr. and Stacia Hulen in "The Best Daddy."

In the adult world, the once adorable curiosity and candor stumble into relationship minefields, as Webster's character does over an intimate dinner with Kelsee B. Hankins, a bag lady in the making,  in "One Tennis Shoe." Adults become shrewdly defensive about their behavior in ways that children manage by sheer trial and error, so Hankins' character flares up and erects a smokescreen when her promiscuous collecting habits are questioned. And adult candor is sometimes appalling: They throw out glib excuses for horrifying brutality, as the auctioneer played by Patrick Slattery does in "Going Once."

Similarly, games tend to lose the element of play and become gut-wrenching exercises in control. One
Sasha Bannister sets the choice before Ryan Powell in "The Lifeboat Is Sinking."
of the most riveting sketches, "The Lifeboat Is Sinking," had an intensely invested wife (Sasha Banister) putting Ryan Powell, playing her husband, through emotional torture in a survival game.

A gang subjects a captive to the third degree because he helped establish a number of old cliches, Exhibit A being "Have a Nice Day" framing a smiley face. Market forces turn grown-ups into both inadvertent and cunning evildoers, from the raspy proprietor of a laundry in "Wash and Dry" (Hankins) to "Buy One, Get One Free"'s  rhyming streetwalkers (Hulen and Hankins) pitching their specialties to a rube (Webster).

At show's end comes a lengthy examination of the fraught relationship between blues singer Blind Willie (effectively portrayed by Powell) and his repressed talking dog Barney (mangy and loudly resentful in Webster's performance). The canine companion's special skill has to remain a secret, of course, hidden to suit the needs of the culture. The irony in this sketch is that the culture doesn't have much of a place for harp-blowing bluesmen, either.

Concealment must almost be a psychological requirement for authors of children's literature. Charles Dodgson, as Lewis Carroll, had to sublimate his attraction to little girls through the "Alice" books. Less dangerously, the children's author-illustrator Tasha Tudor, steeped in post-Alcottian cutesiness, scolded me for asking her age in an interview long ago. I wanted to see how close her childhood was to the era she had done so well calling up sentimentally. She found the question rude and irrelevant.

Silverstein throws off his charming play clothes in "Adult Evening." It's hard to know how completely he embraced personal candor in fashioning these often shocking sketches. But he wanted us to think he had, it's pretty clear. And the TOTS production revels in how bluntly he chose to present his discoveries beyond where quite a different sidewalk ends.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]