By Stephen Kaplan; Directed by Audrey Alford
Produced by Ivy Theatre Company in association with Athena Theatre
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 8.27.17
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
by Asya Danilova on 8.7.17
Jenn Remke and Alexander Bello in A Real Boy. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
BOTTOM LINE: In the fight between puppet parents and human teachers, a young boy’s confused soul becomes a battlefield.
When it comes to raising a child, who knows better, the parents or the educators? And does it make any difference if we are talking about a human child adopted by a couple of puppets? Stephen Kaplan's A Real Boy certainly raises some interesting and uneasy questions, but unfortunately it gets tangled in symbolism and loses emotional connection with the audience in a supposedly cathartic finale. But despite the fact that the play gets confused by its own conventions and, as a result, suffers from muddled direction and acting, A Real Boy bares a grain of noble intention.
Kindergarten teacher Miss Terry (Jenn Remke) gets alarmed when she notices that one of her students, Max Myers (Alexander Bello), only uses two crayons for his drawings, black and white. “There is no color in this child’s life” she shares with Principal Klaus (Jamie Geiger). The Myers are called in for a meeting, and only at this point does Miss Terry realize that both of them are marionette puppets.
A delightfully awkward comedic scene, consisting of piling up stereotypes about puppets, suggests that the Myers represent people who are somehow different from the mainstream, in their appearance, beliefs, or lifestyle. Dressing exclusively in black and white, and keeping their home in the same pallet so as not to complicate things, seems to be a big part of their philosophy. But Miss Terry suspects that it’s not just a question of aesthetic, and there might be something shady going on in this color-free household.
Brian Michaels is the puppeteer for Peter Myers, an easily angered man who is not afraid of getting physical despite his fragile build. Jason Allan Kennedy George operates Mary Ann Myers, a very reserved and scared woman. For the duration of the play, I had (wrongly) suspected that Ms. Myers is the victim of abuse, taking George’s quiet acting as a hint. And just as this was misleading, so is seeing marionettes as some kind of unfairly marginalized group of human-puppet society.
When Miss Terry notices that Max starts to grow strings, she refuses to give him back to his parents, evoking the doctrine “in loco parentis” which allows schools to act “in the place of the parent” in the student’s best interests. In the rapidly escalating dispute, both the Myers' lawyer Jilly Lambert (Katie Braden) and local Congressperson Rebecca Landel (Danie Steel), who's on Team Terry, see an opportunity for fame and publicity. Their hyperbolic feminist rage and enormous egos make these two women seem like the villains (for the lack of better defined juxtaposition).
Overly excited Braden (who is also a co-founder of Ivy Theatre Company) runs around with a baby in the sling the entire time. Combining partnership in a law firm with motherhood is stressful, to say the least, and can justify Braden's over-the-top performance. It is less clear what Steel tries to convey with her loud and obnoxious behavior. And why on earth did costume designer Tristan Raines put a character who manically corrects those who call her “Congresswoman” instead of “Congressperson” in a tight-fitting, low-cut red dress? Lambert and Landel immediately steal the attention away from the main conflict, making it all about themselves. Trying to be puppeteers in the “humans vs puppets” drama, they look like caricatures of successful women.
And don’t forget about Max, a reverse Pinocchio who is confused about his own identity amidst the scandal between adults. Although Bello does a good job, it is difficult for a kid to play this complicated part effectively. Ultimately, it remains unclear—what does it mean to be a marionette in the world of A Real Boy? Is it a part of you that makes you “different”? For a while the play tricks you into thinking that it is about tolerance and acceptance of those who look, think, and live differently. But in the very end, the symbolism of a marionette as something being manipulated moves away from the notion of tolerance.
(A Real Boy plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, through August 27, 2017. The running time is 1 hour 50 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30; Saturday at 2:30 and 7:30; and Sunday at 3:30. Tickets are $25 and are available at 59e59.org or by calling 212-279-4200.)
A Real Boy is by Stephen Kaplan. Directed by Audrey Alford. Set Design is by Ann Beyersdorfer. Lighting Design is by Jenn Fok. Sound Design is by Megan Culley. Costume Design is by Tristan Raines. Puppets are designed and built by Puppet Kitchen. Stage Manager is Stephanie Kay Garcia.
The cast is Alexander Bello, Katie Braden, Jamie Geiger, Jason Allan Kennedy George, Brian Michael, Jenn Remke, Kelley Selznick, and Danie Steel.