I and You, by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Kristen van Ginhoven. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Lilli Hokama as Caroline, Paul Pontrelli as Anthony; photo: Elizabeth Solaka
"There are forty ways cooler than e-mail to communicate."
Lillli Hokama; photo: Elizabeth Solaka
Cinderella is a great story: a commoner is gifted by a fairy godmother with everything she will ever need to make her story have a happy ending. Robin Hood is also a great tale: young man rescues everyone from the King to a lady in distress, robs the rich to feed the poor and is generally considered to be the best looking guy in all England. In both cases, not bad with properly appropriate endings. Happy endings. Satisfying endings.
"I and You" which is currently playing the small stage of Chester Theatre Company in Chester, MA is likewise a fairy tale with a satisfying ending. The difference is that though not everyone gets the happiest ending, everyone is satisfied with what they get. In our age, that's all a fairy tale can truly aspire to achieve.
Like Cinderella our heroine, Caroline (played to perfection by Lilli Hokama), is unhappy with her situation - whatever it is - and she has retired to her room to suffer in lonely silence. There are no ashes to sweep up, no ball to dress for, no glass slippers to slip off her tiny feet, but there is her unreal turtle, her fairy lights and her pictures, lots of pictures, all of them colorful depicting happiness crudely but specifically, inspiring her to dream of a better present and a possible future. Out of school due to an illness that could just be a bad temper, she is shocked to find a boy in her room talking poetry at her, Walt Whitman poetry, hint poetry. Hokama knows exactly when to pout, when to be sweet and when to be hostile. Her energy belies her character's history, but we don't know that history so we only see the surface of that dire truth. The actress is quite wonderful, very capable of moving her audience with petulance and always at work within her character's fairy-tale walls. She is a literal Rapunzel, access to her tower usually available only with her permission, not that of her mother, teacher or a friend.
The boy is Anthony (Paul Pontrelli), a classmate she doesn't recognize, who has come to finish an assigned project for which she is the designated work partner. The project is one of those multi-board displays on Walt Whitman and his poem "Song of Myself" (two sections of this poem are printed in the program and provide a roadmap through the play although the road is more convoluted and confusing than the poem). It is to Pontrelli's credit that all the oddness of his character feels natural and not fanciful. He presents reality with clarity and it is impossible to define the story from the stranger, the boy from whatever else he might really be in this situation.
The uncomfortable relationship doesn't go well until, under the spell of Jerry Lee Lewis, Caroline has a seizure and seeks refuge under her quilt. There is a hint, at this point in the play, to the abnormality of the situation but I defy most people to grab that hint and run with it. Lauren Gunderson, the playwright, is adept at smoke and mirrors, wild goose chases and other fairy-tale fixtures. Late in the second act (or half) of this one-act play the games children play become obsolete as the fairy tale of their lives takes on the heady reality of urban life. Anthony, suffering from his own deficiencies, playing basketball is struck down by fate and his fate is to bring that fairy-tale happiness to Caroline who has no idea that he really is her Prince Charming though she even calls him charming a few times in the course of the play.
The ingenuousness of this play is occasionally cloying, especially in an overheated theater which we dealt with at this Sunday matinee performance. It is a tribute to the players, the play and the director that no one in the overcrowded building was fanning him or herself; the play is that compelling in spite of the almost non-stop rudeness of the girl and nearly impenetrable sweetness of the boy.
Kristen van Ginhoven proves herself, once again, to be the mistress of moments as she guides these players through ticklish situations and self-defeating poetry. She has done a lovely, faithful to the script piece of work here that may not always be enthralling but is, nevertheless, never boring either. Her turn into the final sequence of the fairy-tale is abrupt, as it should be, and fulfilling as it must be to complete the story. In this transition she is aided by a cleverly designed set created by van Ginhoven's partner in theatricality, designer Juliana von Haubrich. As before this van/von combo lifts a terrible instance into the theatrical sublime. Lara Dubin is an able partner, lighting this show for its double-edged realities.
"Chester's opening is a critical hit" said an e-mail that assailed me on my way into the theater to see the play. Coming out of the Chester Town Hall I was forced to admit that yes, indeed, the show is a hit - heat and all.
Paul Pontrelli; photo: Elizabeth Solaka
I and You plays at the Chester Theatre Company located in the Chester Town Hall, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester, MA through July 9. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-354-7771 or go on line at chestertheatre.org.