“Aloha” Absurdity, “Crooked” Congruity

A review of CoHo's and Vertigo's (con)current plays

Okay, here’s what I hoped: to come away from Theatre Vertigo and CoHo this weekend feeling sorry for having recently strayed from them in favor of shiny newer toys (Action/Adventure, Post5, Capital I). While half of my findings inspired such contrition, the other half would reinforce the need for the fresh options I’ve been finding.

Now, to be fair, beyond their shared dates and similar theater sizes, Vertigo’s “Aloha, Say the Pretty Girls” and CoHo’s “Crooked” are as different as apples and pineapples. “Crooked” is an empathetic family drama about queer and teen angst, mental illness and religious friction, while “Aloha” is a comedic split-narrative jam-crammed with superfluous characters and absurdist twists. The only critical standard for even comparing these two is how well each serves its respective purpose. Well, while “Crooked” is as moving as can be, “Aloha” isn’t as funny. Here’s hoping Theatre Vertigo uses its upcoming move into a shoebox space as an opportunity to woodshed.

Loud Girls and Broad Boys

aloha_girls

Theatre Vertigo’s “Aloha, Say the Pretty Girls”

Plenty of potentially funny stuff happens in Naomi Ilzuka’s “Aloha”: characters spontaneously disappear with a silly sound effect; a dog turns into a man and plays out the remaining scenes walking and talking while breaking into the occasional bark; a young female Santa Claus figure leads the audience in a chorus of “Jingle Bells.” But despite its theoretical potential to amuse and surprise, the play more often confuses and contrives. In Act I, the cast (directed by Jen Wineman, whose credits include opera) plays far “bigger” than the Theater? Theatre! space warrants. Wide-eyed, loud-lunged actresses plow through their lines without pause or modulation, as though they’re trapped in a “Speed” scenario where slowing or calming down could trigger an explosion. Actors, meanwhile, either overcommit to caricature (the Stoner, the Gay, the Tough Guy) or deadpan forgettably. Tom Mounsey’s portrayal of writer Derrek is a saving grace, earning his recent addition to the company with the show’s only “slow burn.” Ryan Nicolai’s modular 2-D set pieces, though highly adaptable, add minimal aesthetic value and often make the stage feel fragmented and cluttered. (On their flipside, cartoonishly uniform leaf patterns also distract rather than enhance.)

Act II proves more rewarding as some of the characters’ breakneck mania subdues. (Reviewer’s note: One actor may have caught me plugging one of my ears, and brought it down a notch.) Wendy (Beth Thompson) gives a relevant monologue comparing one’s twenties to a game of musical chairs, Myrna (Britt Harris) bravely sells her unlikely Christmas sing-along, and across the board, more genuine interpersonal dynamics are more credibly addressed. Tropical costuming and a few flourishes of stage-craft also help the show coast through to a pleasant ending. Still, there’s a lingering sense that awkward timing and operatic bombast have subverted much of the humor inherent in the script. (Hint: When even a belch loses a laugh, you may have done something wrong.)

Damaged, But Good

Catherine Trieschmann’s “Crooked” plays a tune on the heartstrings of a young girl and mother suffering the sudden mutual loss of a dad/husband. Partly as a distraction from their real problems and partly par for the coming-of-age course, the pair fight over daughter Laney’s newfound identity as a “Holiness Lesbian,” deeply wounding a gullible preacher’s daughter in their crossfire.

Kayla Lian as daughter Laney has the hardest task: mimicking the tenuous fits and starts of adolescence while maintaining crooked shoulders as pronounced as Laurence Olivier’s limp. Well coached by director Philip Cuomo (an agile Imago alum), she never breaks the pose. A candidate for Artists Equity, she should gain some cred from this role, also showing a rare ability to play a broad age-span. Maureen Porter, in the role of Laney’s mother, shucks off any veneer of vanity in her portrayal of a strong-but-suffering unemployed mother. Seemingly a “cool mom,” she nevertheless strains audience sympathies by picking on her daughter’s dimwitted Christian friend Maribel (Meghan Chambers) Between this tensed-up pair, Chambers fosters most of the comic relief, but also earns sympathy and affection with her at-times-tortured innocence. All three women bring realism to their roles with telling micro-expressions (sly eye-rolls, furtive pursed lips…) and natural gestures. Admittedly, sometimes the blocking faces characters away from the audience, calling for a little more “back-ting” than seems ideal. Also, flannel shirts and grunge guitar music during scene breaks create a 90’s era feel, evoking another dramatic mom and daughter: The Gilmore Girls.

Ironically…

there’s more philosophical grist in “Aloha,” where the characters are broad enough to be archetypes (“Will” seeks “Joy,” “Vivian” gets a life, “Wendy” goes the way the wind blows) than in “Crooked,” where many of the circumstances are too unique to the individual characters to have universal implications. But while “Crooked” meets its creative challenges head-on, “Aloha” goes off on a tropical vacation.

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