August 4, 5, 7, 9. 10, 11, 2012
Lantern Church Gym
I’m having a hard time putting my thoughts together on Redheaded Stepchild. The notion that keeps going round in my mind is that I think I have a love/hate relationship with this play and I’m not sure if one side wins or if they both cancel each other out. Bear with me while I try to explain.
Redheaded Stepchild is a one man show starring Johnnie Walker about a 12 year old boy named Nicholas who is not only a red head and a stepchild, but an outcast loser who is mercilessly picked on at school and is about to get beat up. Mostly because of the colour of his hair. Or maybe there is more to it. But either way, things aren’t looking very good for this scared, awkward, not entirely likeable boy.
The show has been getting great reviews including winning the Best of Fest recently at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, and while I wasn’t excited to see what looked like another ‘watch me suffer as I make jokes about it’ kind of play, I couldn’t ignore the buzz. This to my mind was only half right. Or more precisely, it was right only half the time.
The play opens up with a very campy and cartoonishly pompous character named Rufus Vermillion who acts as a kind of narrator for the show. From the instant this character hit the stage I wanted him off. Yes he served the narrative purpose of setting up Nicholas’s persona and getting us ready to meet him, but he was performed with such stereotypical and over the top acting that I found him neither funny nor ironic.
At first the Nicholas character wasn’t much better. Obviously ‘acted’, there was nothing natural or elegant about this performance. It’s a typical problem when actors try to portray children or young teens. Instead of relaxing into the persona, they ham up the petulance and foot stomping to show everyone just how kid-like they can play.
A scene where Nicholas bemoans that there are no redheaded heroes to look up to is mildly cute until he dons a red wig and lip-synchs to Rita Hayworth singing Put the Blame on Mame. The scene is both too long and distinctly unfunny.
But just when I was about to give up, the love kicked in. We are introduced to his stepmother Marianne (also played by Walker) , a smoking, ex-Jehovah’s Witness, golf pro who has affection for her geeky stepson but not the parental stills to care for him. Putting on a wig and affecting a fantastically annoying laugh, Walker plays the stepmom with such charm that you can’t help but like her in spite of her irritating quirks.
Unfortunately the Rufus character pops up again like a mosquito that won’t go away, but thankfully he is done with his hackneyed narration and Nicholas is back in the spotlight, less histrionic and delivering some terribly effective and touching storytelling. We learn about his trips to the guidance counselor ‘Caring Carol’ and a gym locker room scene that is the catalyst for the impending beating. It’s in these scenes that my affection for the play grows and my attraction to both the writing and the performance blossoms.
In fact the last quarter of the play, with its quieter moments and honest as opposed to showmanship acting gave off several theatre moment gems. Even when Rufus appeared in his final scene, his character seemed to be toned down and more interesting for it.
The beating is of course the climax of the play and we’ve been waiting for it all hour. Walker handles it well and we leave the show feeling satisfied that a complete story was told. But for me, that story vacillated between compelling and disappointing by virtue of the type of acting/writing we were being treated to.
Like I said… a love/hate feeling.
For the guys – Nicholas at times is funny and you will certainly feel sorry for him. But you might be turned off by his whining. MAYBE SEE IT
For the girls – You will empathize for sure. No one should be afraid of being beaten up. But I highly doubt you will say that you like the character all that much. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – The Rufus character gets in the way of a good story but Nicholas’s tale is interesting and the stepmom will appeal to you. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – It’s not a must see, but there are some wonderful moments in the midst of the mess. MAYBE SEE IT