The Zebra Shirt of Lonely Children
New York International Fringe Festival, New Solo Show
Runs through 8.24.12
The Steve & Marie Sgouros Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street, 3rd floor
Matthew Trumbull in THE ZEBRA SHIRT OF LONELY CHILDREN.
BOTTOM LINE: A devastating and funny personal monologue about losing a parent performed by a master storyteller -- a true gift from Matthew Trumbull to his audiences.
Does anyone going through the death of a loved one execute all of the steps perfectly? Do we cry at the exact appropriate times or prepare ourselves appropriately for all of the necessary tasks that will be asked of us? Matthew Trumbull, in his remarkably comic and touching monologue play The Zebra Shirt of Lonely Children suggests probably not.
However, what Trumbull does get perfectly is the telling of his own experience going through the death of his structural engineer (not to be confused with those flashy architects) father who he lost to lung cancer. Trumbull, now in his mid-30s, was only 26 at the time he was asked to write and delivery a eulogy for his father -- he ended up with only a paragraph after hours of contemplation and a late night Applebee’s meeting with his best friend. Zebra Shirt may very well be the most perfect eulogy he could have ever written for his father though and it is truly a gift to give this story to his audiences eliciting tears and laughs as he shares his father’s life story to the end and how he, feeling often an inadequate son pursuing an acting career rather than a steady position at an architectural firm like his father, has come to a deeper understanding of his loss. It is one of those few theatrical experiences where a “review” seems truly inadequate and a humble “thank you” to Mr. Trumbull is more appropriate.
Trumbull is aided by the graceful direction of Matthew Freeman; the pair weave this 60-minute journey, always remaining mindful of when to slow down and go into deep detail of a moment, and when to go for a punch-line. The set is a perfect little arm chair, rug and sidetable. It’s just enough to allow us to escape the confines of a downtown blackbox theatre and imagine we’re in and out of Minnesota houses and funeral homes. Trumbull clearly takes a note out of his fellow native Minnesotan storyteller Garrison Keillor describing the smallest of moments with a gentle voice. Like Keillor, he goes into character voices complete with a Minnesotan accent but never truly abandons himself onstage with his dry, sensitive and often awkward temperament.
A key component to the story and Trumbull’s experience of losing his father was the decision his father made to donate his body to be used for medical studies at universities. This is a perfect example of how Trumbull traverses the spectrum of humor and grief. He reenacts the meeting with the representative of the Anatomy Bequest Program who explains the options of how and where his father’s body can be used. One option keeps the body at one university for the short-term, the other has his body going to different universities around the state for a longer time. Both circumstances end with his remains being cremated and returned to the family. Trumbull, as the representative, explains this in a thick accent speaking about it as though he were selling a timeshare up on Lake Minnetonka. Later however, we see the reality of this moment hit as his mother needs to decide what clothing her just deceased husband should wear minutes before he’s taken away in a hearse to begin his tour of Minnesota as a donated body.
Zebra Shirt is just as much about life as it is death. Trumbull says that every morning cup of coffee should be enjoyed while hot and never taken for granted, nor should your relationship with the people you love while they’re still with you.
I hope that Trumbull’s story does not see its end at this Fringe Festival, but rather that it can benefit from the festival by seeing continued life elsewhere. The construction and performance of this monologue play can help countless people dealing with the loss of a parent or loved one in any stage of grief. I could easily see this writing fitting perfectly in the pages of The New Yorker or on NPR's This American Life. Hopefully Trumbull will continue telling it himself live on many more stages. Just in case however, I’d highly recommend seeing it now, as it is a highlight of this year’s New York Fringe Festival.
(The Zebra Shirt of Lonely Children plays at The Steve & Marie Sgouros Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street, 3rd floor, through August 24, 2012. Remaining performances are August 22nd at 5PM, and August 24th at 4:15PM. Tickets are $15 in advance or $18 at the door and are available at www.fringenyc.org. More information is available at http://zebrashirt.tumblr.com/)