“The time does speed by, so enjoy every moment.”
I was curious as to why Trustus decided to go off-site for this production, which is being performed on the Columbia Children’s Theatre stage at Richland Mall. CCT is currently performing Mary Poppins at Eau Claire High School, so I figured it was simply a neat idea; a cute wink at the subject of motherhood, as well as an opportunity for two prominent arts organizations to partner and cross-promote. While these considerations and more were most likely part of the decision-making process, I must admit to having not considered the impact of place-association in creating the world of Motherhood Out Loud.
Having attended many performances at CCT, I have come to associate it with child-oriented entertainment and education. There’s a specific energy to the space, defined through the group’s signature décor of costumes and props, the openness of the seating, (sorry, folks, the front row is only a few feet from the stage, so there’s no sitting on the floor this time) and an overall feeling of being in a room that knows and welcomes the company of large groups of kids. I found myself smiling and looking around the audience space, as if I expected to see a laughing runaway toddler chased by a cheerful-but-weary mom, or a group of fidgety children eagerly awaiting the show. I was, that is to say, put into the perfect mindset for this little gem of a production.
Motherhood Out Loud is a series of vignettes created by fourteen different playwrights, presented in a mockumentary style, with the characters frequently speaking directly to the audience while remaining in character. As the title suggests, the theme is that of motherhood, but this is more than a series of antique Erma Bombeck mom jokes or a retread of Kids Say the Darndest Things. While primarily a comedy, the script touches on timely and important topics such as same-sex parenting, gender identity, raising children with special needs, and how families deal with aging parents. Not having any kids of my own, I wondered if I would grow weary of the subject, but the writing is uniformly engaging, and requires no experience with parenting to appreciate and enjoy.
There’s a nicely-defined arc throughout Motherhood Out Loud, which opens with three pregnant women in various stages of agony and ecstasy, each ready to give birth. In their midst is a male OB-Gyn, doing his best to keep things normal while the three mothers-to-be expound on their hopes, dreams, and fears for the upcoming arrivals. There’s plenty of classic kidding-on-the-square about the physical pains of childbirth, but great sincerity and warmth shines through the vaudevillian “I’m giving birth to a bowling ball” humour, launching the stories of the numerous babies, children, and young adults about whom we will soon be hearing. As the show progresses through five “chapters,” these offstage offspring grow up, a process reflected in the monologues and small scenes we witness taking place among their elders. It may be cliché to wonder where the time went, but Motherhood Out Loud is only slightly over ninety minutes long (and quite entertaining) so I was actually a bit surprised when I realized it was over. The show runs without an intermission, adding another layer of audience relation to the text’s overall message. The time does speed by, so enjoy every moment.
The cast is strong and experienced, and even a Columbia theatre first-timer would know within the first few minutes that these folks are all A-list performers. Katrina Blanding, Felicia Bulgozdy, Joseph Eisenreich, and Becky Hunter each play about a dozen different characters, all fully developed and unique. They change the simple set pieces of oversized building blocks themselves, often while dancing along with a collection of 1960s and 70s pop classics ranging from “Ooh, Child” and “Baby Love” to “It Takes Two” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” (The scene change music would make an excellent road trip playlist.)
While this is a true ensemble piece, each actor has more than one opportunity to shine. No spoilers ahead, but definitely keep an eye out for Hunter’s delightfully less-than-perfect mom doing her best to live up to the standards of two idealized, by-the-book clones during a day in the park, Blanding’s hilarious and bittersweet monologue about the recent visit of her hovering, Carribean-accented helicopter mom, Bulgozdy’s second-act tour de force as an elderly grandmother who lays out some bare facts about child-raising, and Eisenreich’s funny, heartwarming, sweetly melancholy, yet ultimately empowering editorial about raising his child with another man. These were my particular faves, but without a clinker in the bunch, you may well discover yours in some of the other scenes. For a show with this structure to succeed, all the players must completely buy into the shifting realities from scene to scene and character to character, and this quartet succeeds with room to spare.
Director Martha Hearn Kelly has cast with an expert eye, creating a team that works extremely well together, and could easily be envisioned as four parents having a grown-ups night out together, laughing and crying over the latest exploits of their kids. Kelly also serves double-duty as Sound Designer, so I may be hitting her up for a CD of the above-mentioned soundtrack. A well-supported and sustained theme clearly runs through both direction and sound , with congratulations due to Kelly for managing to excel at doing two challenging jobs at once.
Scenic Designer Sam Hetler, who recently began his new job as Trustus’ Technical Director, has done an admirable job, giving Motherhood Out Loud a bright, multi-colored, minimalist set, with simple cubes hung on the wall and scattered around the stage, occasionally functioning as storage units for the eye-catching accent pieces provided by Costume Designer Abigail McNeely. The actors are all dressed in basic black, with such things as scarves, ties, headdresses, etc., appearing from various cubbyholes and closets within the building-block structures to create various characters. Small though they may be, these transitions are all done with choreographed precision and nary a wasted movement, allowing the show to flow without interruption.
Motherhood Out Loud continues its run this weekend, with performances Wednesday – Sunday at 7pm, with a 2pm Sunday matinee. Whether you’re a parent or childless-by-choice, you’re sure to get some good laughs and a moment or two of sentimental warmth from this charming set of tales from the front lines of parenting, told by some of Columbia’s best storytellers.
Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER.