Losing your mother is tough. Things can sometimes be a bit surreal as you try to deal with that loss while fanciful memories flood your mind at the most inopportune times – like when you’re at the funeral home trying to make final arrangements. Mix all that with a sideways Cinderella story, and you have actor and playwright Colman Domingo’s Wild With Happy which just opened at TheatreWorks in its West Coast Premiere.
Setting the mood, the preshow music includes various versions of the song “Get Happy”. The last one is the Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand duet that’s played in full and followed by lights up. The play bounces with Gil along a twisted path that ends in a road trip to the happiest place on earth – Walt Disney World. Through it all, we find out more about Gil as he flips between reality and his memories of conversations with his recently departed mother. We learn that Gil has an Ivy League English degree, and he’s pursuing a career as a struggling actor. We also discover that his mother was a dreamer who tried to make “make-believe” come true, and she’s instilled some of her whimsical spirit in her son.
As director Danny Scheie states in his program notes, “the play is staggeringly gay; it’s also as black as can be…yet it’s not about being black and gay at all.” An interesting statement, but in spite of several situations that draw from both of those aspects, the story is really about a mother-son relationship and how the son deals with losing and searching for that magic along the journey his loss inspires.
Scheie brought both Domingo (Gil) and Sharon Washington (Adelaide/Aunt Glo) together again, the two having performed in the New York premiere of Wild With Happy earlier this season. He added Duane Boutté (Mo and others) and Richard Prioleau (Terry and others) building a very tight ensemble for this TheatreWorks production.
The script describes Gil as a “deconstructed Cinderella,” and Domingo is a bit of everything in the role. He’s sometimes flamboyant, sometimes brash, sometimes quiet and reflective, and sometimes a calm narrator keeping the audience informed as he guides us through the story. He works extremely well with Washington believably showing the deference he’d have for his mother or his aunt yet still respectfully standing up to them when necessary.
Washington does a nice job separating Adelaide (i.e., Gil’s mother) from Aunt Glo. As Glo, short for Glodine, she’s the evil stepmother who’s bold, brash, and sounds like she’s on the pulpit preaching most of the time. Glo is a force of nature who loved her “onliest” sister and is grieving in her own way. She’s upset with Gil because he has Adelaide cremated and bypasses his culture’s memorial traditions. Glo tells him that “our people just don’t do that.” Some of Glo’s mania becomes a bit tedious at times, but it fits the character. There’s a very funny segment when Gil and Glo first return to Adelaide’s apartment and Glo ransacks her sister’s closet. She puts on most of the clothes, item on top of item, as she lectures Gil. As bombastic as Glo is through much of the play, her final scene with Domingo is extremely touching and ties the play together in a very satisfying fashion.
As Adelaide Washington is quieter, though still in the forefront, and she appropriately maintains a somewhat surreal presence as a memory in Gil’s mind. She’s the archetypical mother that Cinderella pined for “in her own little corner, in her own little chair.”
Prioleau is cute. His characterization of Terry is like a Saint Bernard that Gil describes, only smaller and very much alive. Terry is a Prince Charming, clearly attracted to Gil, but he’s playing it cool, just trying to help him.
Boutté’s Mo is the least believable character, but he’s supposed to be. Mo is really a caricature and is a misfit. He’s fanciful, irreverent, and very full of himself, all of which come through. He is also a best buddy to Gil and tells him the truth as he literally brings him to a happier place.
Scenic designer Erik Flatmo provided a sparse, yet serviceable set. There are several locations, but the design allows for easy manipulation and very quick transitions as pieces either roll or fly in and out as needed. An oversized proscenium makes the closed curtain stage appear to be readying us for a life-sized puppet show, but we later learn that it’s in place to act as a partial projection screen. Designed by David Lee Cuthbert, lighting and projection form a major part of the presentation. Lighting shifts emphasize Washington’s characters, making it very clear when she’s real or imagined.
The road trip is staged in an unusual fashion. Gil and Mo are leading the trip with Terry and Glo chasing them, so there are two cars fixed on stage. Small screens are in place above the cars to show us the actors inside. It’s initially a little distracting seeing the actors sitting in the cars in profile while simultaneously seeing them facing forward on the screens above in an effect that almost resembles a movie split screen. Forward motion is achieved by road signs zipping upstage of the cars. The overall effect is clear but not terribly elegant.
Once they reach Walt Disney World the scene and set are a little bigger, and we see the Cinderella tie-in in a very direct sense. It’s colorful, it’s bright, and it’s explosive, but in a good way. The play really does get Wild With Happy at that point.
In his program interview, Domingo said that he could separate the playwright from the actor, and when he is acting, the playwright isn’t in the room. Though the playwright may not be, his words are, and Domingo makes them come alive. Wild With Happy, is just that as it sends a strong message that even in loss, you can focus on the “happy”.
What: Wild With Happy
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View
When: Continues through 30 June 2013
See www.theatreworks.org/shows/1213-season/wildwithhappy or call (650)463-1960 for more information or to order tickets.
(Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka)