REVIEW: Jon Tuttle's Boy About Ten at Trustus Theatre

A talent for drama is not a talent for writing, but is an ability to articulate human relationships.” 

-Gore Vidal

Boy about ten.jpg

John Tuttle is, by any standard, a man with a talent for writing, but after seeing the world premiere of his play, Boy About Ten, I can affirm that he is also quite adept at articulating human relationships. Indeed, the oft-troubled intertwining of Boy About Ten’s dysfunctional, but (somewhat) connected nuclear family of four, drives the plot of Tuttle’s work, taking a well-written piece to the level of a performance bristling with all the sharp edges relationships can provide. This is not to suggest that the production currently running at Trustus is without laughter or light-hearted moments. It may be a tragicomedy, but Boy About Ten doesn’t hesitate to let the tragic cede the stage to the comedic in a legitimate, story-faithful way. In his program notes, Trustus Artistic Director, Chad Henderson, comments that “this play has undergone a more involved development process than our previous Playwrights Festival winners or commissions,” which no doubt contributed to the feeling of polish and streamlining found in the script. I managed to make notes on some of the truly standout lines, but by no means is my list comprehensive.

 

The play opens with D’Loris (Lonetta Thompson), a kindhearted but world-weary social worker, dealing with what is clearly a family in distress. She is trying to prepare Todd (Tommy Wiggins), the elder son, to go to his mothers’ house for a week. Todd is obviously troubled in multiple ways, but is largely nonverbal, using a set of oversized headphones to drown out the conflict which surrounds him, while hiding his face behind his chin-length bangs.  As usual, Thompson creates a fully-realized, textured character, who has flaws as well as sincerely caring nature. I never tire of seeing Thompson onstage, as she is always completely immersed in and committed to her character and the moment. It would have been the easy way out to depict D’Loris as either a hyper-idealistic Wonder Woman, or as a “honey, I’ve seen it all,” world-weary cynic, but Thompson chose to create someone in-between, and in the process, gave the audience a layered, complex, and realistic performance. Kudos also to Wiggins, a former Trustus Apprentice Company member, making his mainstage debut. Though Todd doesn’t speak much, especially in the early scenes, his body language, movement style, and a sort of self-embrace clearly establish him as a damaged human being, doing his best to avoid his psychic pain. When it is revealed that he is a self-cutter/burner, it is a bit of a shock, but totally believable for the character he has, by that point, made three-dimensional. I suspect we’ll be seeing much more of Wiggins on the Trustus stage in seasons to come, and I look forward to watching his development as an actor.

 

The arrival of Tammy (Jennifer Hill), lightens the mood by, ironically, introducing the least likeable of the five characters. Hill’s Tammy is brash, flashy, loud, and obnoxious, fancying herself far above the rest of the family. She dresses herself in designer clothing, while a couple of mentions are made of the kids’ clothes coming from Goodwill, and she personifies the cliche of the “helicopter parent,” dispensing screechy advice and criticism thinly veiled as “encouragement.” Hill’s comedic timing is absolutely spot-on, and she brought Friday night’s house down with such well-penned verbal spewings as “I was once a Sweet Potato Queen, now I’m a Cyclops!” (It seems that Tammy has a glass eye, which is broken, requiring her to wear an eye patch.) Clearly proud of her somewhat meager accomplishments, she touts having played Yum-Yum in a community college production of The Mikado, along with a few other small successes, in an attempt to impress D’Loris, who is eventually prompted to ask “what the hell is wrong with you people?” The moments of conflict between Tammy and D’Loris establish a curious dynamic. Tammy, in her own twisted, control-freak way, wants the best for her children, while D’Loris tries to help establish exactly that, which eludes the self-centered Tammy.

One gathers fairly quickly that Tammy is at her ex-husband’s house to swap out the younger son, Timmy, (Daniel Rabinovich), who is a straight-A, rule-abiding, do-gooder, complete with Webelos Scout uniform, and practically a stranger to Todd, and the two react somewhat cautiously to each other. (I may have missed an important line or mention of the situation, but it is clear that the brothers have not spent much time together.) Rabinovich demonstrates an actor’s sensitivities quite impressively, especially for a young actor. His character arc may well be the most dramatic in terms of growth and change, and he handles it like a true pro. As with Wiggins, this is a young man to watch.

Once all is settled, Timmy is left alone with his father, Terry. Played by Trustus mainstay, Paul Kaufmann, Terry is an affable, childlike n’ere-do-well, whose love for his sons manifests in an “at my house, there are no rules” dynamic. (When asked by Timmy if they can attend an Imax film or visit the Planetarium, Terry immediately scoffs at the thought of an educational outing, at least in the traditional sense.) Kaufmann, without ever breaking the established reality of the play, or mugging to the audience, brought to life an enchanting man-child, reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Big, with a dash of Bertie Wooster and Falstaff tossed in. To Timmy’s growing amusement, the two of them chug Cheerwine (no sodas allowed at Tammy’s house), fight ludicrous pretend war games against “Vagicilla, Dark Queen of the Nether Regions” (inspired, no doubt, by Tammy), and Timmy frequently receives his father’s military decorations, which may or may not be legit. It was at this point that I began to wonder about the show’s eponymous title. Was Timmy the Boy About Ten, or was his father? Had the parent/child dynamic between them already shifted before the action of the play began? Kaufmann, incidentally, scores one of the biggest laughs in the show while telling Timmy about his days in an ersatz KISS cover band. “You can always tell when chicks dig you. They chew their gum at you…like meat!”

 

A brief in-one scene gives us our sole glimpse of life at Tammy’s house, when the focus is, both literally and figuratively, on Todd, who is passively receiving an unwanted haircut from his mother. A special tip of the hat to Lighting Designer Laura Anthony, for transforming a simple floor lamp into a “where were you on the night of the robbery?” beacon. This is an occasion upon which the lighting truly made the scene for me. We, the audience, are semi-blinded by the intensity of the same light shining into Todd’s eyes, and subject to the same jabber from Tammy. Like a police officer in a bad, made-for-TV crime drama, she prattles on and on about how Todd should want to be “normal” and make friends “like all the other boys,” painting a Leave It To Beaver lifestyle, which will supposedly emerge with a haircut and a suit from Goodwill. Interrogation/indoctrination and “tough love” establish an uneasy coexistence at Tammy’s house, and the two children she raised reflect that. Timmy’s unblinking obedience earns him praise, so he obeys. Todd, whom I assumed to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, is unable to deal with what his senses perceive as blinding light and a barrage of impossible commands. Though short, this scene impacted me. I began to wonder through whose eyes we were seeing any given situation, and then viewing each scene from each character’s angle. Thank you, Jon Tuttle, for this (I’m guessing) three-page scene, which widened the lens through which I saw the rest of the play. Though she was the antagonist of the scene, it allowed a glimpse into Tammy’s desperate desire for a “normal, happy, family,” and humanized her for me.

 

I won’t go into too much detail about the second act, as it is, essentially, a minefield of spoilers, and much of what happens requires the elements of shock and surprise to work. While not without laughs, the second act takes a somewhat darker turn, with a grim family story, involving animal abuse, being revealed. (*While no violence is depicted onstage, a gruesome monologue could be mildly to moderately triggering for some.*) Terry childishly endangers his and Timmy’s lives at the end of act one, the aftermath of which, we see in act two. Todd returns, neatly trimmed and besuited, but still distant, albeit with the occasional smile of hope. Toward the end of the play, we discover that Terry suffered physical wounds far worse than Timmy’s while saving the boy from the dangerous results of his (Terry’s) recklessness. Romantic impossibilities are pondered and argued, D’Loris loses another crumb of her idealism, but hangs on to hope, Timmy takes his first step toward adult cynicism, Tammy reveals some game-changing information, and the family is left as we found them; bruised and battered, but oddly okay. The playwright leaves us with the idea that life will simply go on, and with the insanity and bizarre love in this family, who can even speculate on the eventual outcome?

 

Director Patrick Michael Kelly has taken an artfully written play, refined by much workshopping, and brought to the stage a world of slightly-heightened reality, never losing sight of the connecting themes of family and what it truly means to care for someone.

 

So, who is the Boy About Ten? I have my suspicions that each character, with the exception of D’Loris (who serves as the impartial observer and voice of reason) is that boy. Perhaps that answers my earlier question, and tips us off that the show is seen from D’Loris’ perspective.

Boy About Ten is an engaging, thought-provoking, and most enjoyable play, and a worthy addition to the Tuttle ouvre. Only four performances remain, so get your tickets now!

-- Frank Thompson

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Tickets can be purchased online at Trustus.org , or by calling the Trustus Theatre box office on 803.254.9732
 
Remaining performance dates are:
Wednesday, August 22 – 7:30pm
Thursday, August 23 – 7:30pm
Friday, August 24 – 8:00pm
Saturday, August 25 – 8:00pm
 
Frank Thompson is the theatre editor for Jasper Magazine - contact him at flt31230@yahoo.com
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Bakari Lebby Directs Jon Tuttle & Cindy Turner's SYZYGY Play, One Another

Bakari (Kari) Lebby - photo by Singing Fox Creatives

Bakari (Kari) Lebby - photo by Singing Fox Creatives

by Jenna Schiferl

 

In astronomy, syzygy is the alignment of three celestial objects.  The origins of the word date back to as early as Ancient Greece, where the word suzugos meant ‘yoked’ and ‘paired.’

 

As part of the upcoming total solar eclipse celebrations in Columbia, The Jasper Project is launching a three-part series featuring South Carolina’s top poets, playwrights, directors, and actors.  SYZYGY will kick off on Thursday, Aug. 17 with a poetry invitational and book release at the newly renovated Richland County Public Library Auditorium.  Later that day will begin the SYZYGY: THE PLAYS. Six local playwrights were asked to create a 10-minute piece with three actors or less.  The only other requirement was that each performance includes two and a half minutes of “darkness” to continue in the theme of the solar eclipse.  Finally, the project will conclude with SYZYGY: POSTMORTEM, a panel discussion and reflection led by playwright Jon Tuttle and Columbia Poet Laureate Ed Madden.  The discussion will delve into topics such as the processes of culture transitioning to art and its effectiveness.

 

University of South Carolina graduate Bakari Lebby will direct Jon Tuttle and Cindy Turner’s drama, One Another.

 

Jasper executive and editor-in-chief Cindi Boiter approached Lebby to direct the play, who was immediately on board.

 

According to Lebby, One Another is incredibly relevant to the current political climate.

 

One Another is about trust and privilege. I believe it is a very timely piece,” Lebby says.  “I'm excited for people to view this piece and contemplate its relevance to this country and them personally.”

 

Although the play is limited to 10 minutes, Lebby and his team are working to create a fully developed and cohesive storyline.

 

“We're working hard to flesh out a full true story,” Lebby says.

 

The three actors featured in the play are Akida Lebby, Jason Stokes, and Avery Bateman.  Lebby emphasized the impressive cast when asked why individuals should be interested in seeing the play.

 

“We have veteran Trustus Company members and my little brother, so I think it's worth seeing their artistic prowess,” he says.  “I'm very stoked and thankful for this opportunity, and I hope we keep pushing the boundaries of theatre, art, and the culture of Columbia.”

 

Ultimately, the night will be one with themes of alignment, synchronization, and of course – darkness.

 

SYZYGY: The Solar Eclipse Plays will be performed at 7 pm and 10 pm on Thursday, August 17th with a reception honoring the artists at 9 pm. Tickets are $10 and are available at https://www.tappsartscenter.com/

Playwright Jon Tuttle   

Playwright Jon Tuttle

 

Jon Tuttle's "The Palace of the Moorish Kings" - A Review by Jillian Owens

Jon Tuttle’s new play, The Palace of the Moorish Kings (based on the short story by Evan S. Connell) makes for a powerful and thought-provoking night of theatre.  Tuttle is no stranger to  Trustus Theatre – he’s their Playwright-in-Residence.  You may remember him from such works as The Sweet Abyss, Holy Ghost, and The White Problem. It’s Thanksgiving Day, 1970.  Dave and Millicent, played by Gene Aimone and Christina Whitehouse-Suggs, are a seemingly happy upper middle class couple full of smiles with a lovely home (newly renovated!) and dear friends whom they’ve invited over for their traditional holiday feast.  But there’s more than a hint of worry behind their cheerful expressions:  there’s one guest that hasn’t RSVP’d.  Their son has gone missing in Vietnam, but traditions must continue.

As the guests arrive, we learn theirs is not the only family in concealed crisis.  Aileen and Art (played by Becky Hunter and Christopher Cockrell), have a marriage whose foundation is beginning to show its cracks.  Leroy and his daughter Junie (played by James Harley and Erin Huiett) seem to be a content pair, but why has Junie dropped out of college?  Barbara and Al (played by Kim Harne and Shane Walters) are still deeply in love after many years of marriage, but Barbara’s sporadically shaky right hand indicates trouble on the horizon.  This coming-of-middle-age story explores what this group of friends, who have known each other since high school, has given up in their quest for the American Dream.  They’ve all achieved their own levels of success, but still have become wistful and jealous when they hear from their friend J.D., a draft dodger who chose a life of travel and adventure over college, a job, and marriage.  They all live vicariously through his letters from around the world, which curiously never ask about their own, considerably more predictable lives.

All of the actors do an excellent job with their roles.  Huiett makes a wonderfully subtle Junie, which is perhaps the most important character in the play.  We see her asking all the questions the rest of the group wishes they had asked themselves at her age.  She’s not quite so easily sold on the idea of a marriage and a split level being the ingredients for happiness and fulfillment.  Hunter’s Aileen is spot-on and sassy, with unwavering energy and passion.  Aimone, Suggs, and Cockrell deliver powerful and dynamic performances. Other characters, however, seem to exist merely as sounding boards for their more fleshed-out counterparts.  James Harley does what he can with the role of Leroy, who doesn’t say or do very much, except get a little sad about his divorce, and worried about his daughter.  Harne and Walters also fall victim to being good actors with weak characters.  They make a convincingly loving couple, and Harne’s portrayal of a woman who is in the beginning stages of a serious illness is truly touching -- but it seems like Al only exists to provide exposition about the adventures of the well-traveled J.D.  Once again, Walters does what he can, but this script doesn’t give him anywhere to go.  As  director, Dewey  Scott-Wiley has gotten the most out of her cast with this demanding script.

A great deal of dialog is dedicated to how beautiful and amazing Dave and Millicent’s home is, and the set really needed to show the 1970's ideal of beautiful and amazing.  I wasn’t feeling it.  It seemed almost unfinished and quickly thrown together.  An implied set would have worked better for this production if budget or time constraints were the issue. 

The Palace of The Moorish Kings leaves you in a state of thoughtful contemplation.  I would like to see this show 20 years from now, to see if I still identify with the youthful idealism of Junie, or if I find myself agreeing with the older, more conservative Dave.  It’s a show I’d like to take my parents to see with me and discuss over dinner afterwards. Perhaps you’ll go see it with yours?

 

~ Jillian Owens

The Palace of the Moorish Kings  continues its run on Wednesday, August 15th, and runs through this Saturday, August 18th.   The Wednesday and Thursday night performances  start at 7:30 PM, while Friday and Saturday nights begin at 8:00 PM.  Note that half-price student tickets are available 15 minutes prior to every curtain.  Trustus Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady St. and on Pulaski St.  The Main Stage entrance is located on the Publix side of the building.  For more information or reservations, call the box office at 803-254-9732, or visit http://www.trustus.org .