All fans of quirky theater are encouraged to flock to Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks, which typically runs from mid-May to the end of June. Each season, the Clubbed Thumb artistic team — currently spearheaded by Producing Artistic Director Maria Striar (who has been with Clubbed Thumb since their 1996 debut) and Associate Artistic Director Michael Bulgar — pore over hundreds of submissions seeking unique voices with something funny and insightful to say. Each final selection is carefully cultivated with precision and vision. As the company’s reputation has grown, so has their ability to attract superior acting and behind-the-scenes talent that can rapidly bring these challenging pieces to fruition. Many of these plays go on to lead fuller lives, including Men in Boats at Playwrights Horizons and The Wolves at Lincoln Center.
Their current production is Plano, which was commissioned by Clubbed Thumb for the 2017-18 Directing Fellowship. The director in question is Taylor Reynolds who, along with her outstanding cast, brings out every magical beat of Will Arbery’s script. Surreal images including a red ribbon independently descending a staircase and a Faceless Ghost (played with acrobatic aptitude by Brendan Dalton) are blended into the often funny story of three fairly realistic sisters. This authenticity is no doubt made possible by playwright Arbery being the only boy in a family of eight siblings. Genevieve, the eldest, is a stereotypical know-it-all. The youngest, Isabel, is coddled to the point of thinking she might be a saint. In between them is Anne, the often-overlooked middle child struggling to establish identity. Their simple lives of work and family are intruded upon by strangeness that might be a curse. The town of Plano is used almost Mad Lib-like to represent alternative mindsets which are open to interpretation. Time passes through the use of the phrase “it’s later.” And husbands split into multiple parts so that they can do the dishes while also dancing the night away.
The skill needed to pull off clipped dialogue that is based more on timing than on story cannot be overstated. Crystal Finn as Anne, Miriam Silverman as Genevieve and Susannah Flood as Isabel stay perfectly in tune with each other throughout the 75 minute runtime. They are wonderfully supported by Mary Schultz as their religious fanatic mother, Mary, Cesar J. Rosado as Anne’s gay husband, John, and most especially by Ryan King as multiple Steves all of whom are married to Genevieve. The far-seeing Ms. Reynolds pushes their characters’ oddball boundaries by using nearly every inch of the theater, including the exit aisle and the area beneath the stage. Elaborate fight scenes are expertly choreographed by Kelly Bartnik.
The rest of the creative team has kept things delightfully simple. The suggestion of a ranch house by scenic designer Daniel Zimmerman is given necessary mood changes by Isabella Byrd’s lighting and Mark Van Hare’s sound design. Stephanie Levin’s costumes are casual and, most importantly, move well.
With its basic human experience infused with mystical adventure, Plano is unlikely to be confused with anything else you’ve seen. It is being presented at The Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd St. This column is based on the June 21 performance, at which point performances were being added to the schedule and it was anticipated there would be a few modifications made to the production. For tickets and the latest information visit https://www.clubbedthumb.org/productions/2018/.
We are seated in the Milton Community Center witnessing the making of a documentary. Ten years ago, this small Nebraska town was rocked when the title character of Bobbie Clearly shot and killed Casey Welsh when she was 16 and he 14. For nearly 2 1/2 hours, we will hear from Bobbie and ten others about what led up to that horrific event and beyond it to present day. It will be as hard to see the next turn in their stories as it is to navigate the tall fields of corn where Casey’s body was found.
Avoiding the pitfalls of some of the seasons other issues-oriented productions, Bobbie Clearly focuses on the violent act’s human impact rather than on the shooting itself. Playwright Alex Lubischer has generously peppered his moving script with moments of humor, taking care to treat his characters with affection even when poking fun. Though primarily delivered in interview format (to an unseen host), the relationships sparkle. There are times when two people are telling separate segments using identical phrases, shining a light on the importance of context. Lubischer also captures a common progression of high school friendships, following four of Bobbie’s classmates from their summer jobs corn detasseling through their awkward fundraisers in Casey’s memory. Further, there is a profound exploration of the link between religion and forgiveness. Most importantly in this delicate time, Lubischer is careful not to take a stand on guns by making Casey’s father, Stanley, take delight in hunting as a distraction from his grief.
The entire cast is terrific, beginning with Ethan Dubin who — though used sparingly — manages to be both sweet and disturbing as Bobbie. Many will recognize the magnificent Constance Shulman from her equally wonderful ensemble work in television including Orange is the New Black. With her tiny wiry frame and high-pitched croak, she makes an unusual police officer, which is perfect given the unconventional bond she develops with Bobbie from the time he was the Sunday school bully to the day he makes his best attempt at repairing the huge hole he has ripped in his community. Her intensity is balanced by the performance of JD Taylor as Bobbie’s misguided and slightly goofy Big Brother Derek Nelson. As BF(F?)s and mismatched bookends Megan and Meghan, Talene Monahon and Sasha Diamond play off each other with great timing. And Tyler Lea taps into both vulnerability and inner strength as Casey’s younger brother, Eddie, the only witness to the murder.
The piece is performed in 3/4 round with what are essentially service doors to the space serving as entrances and exits. As directed by Will Davis, the energy flows consistently even through the silences. He may also be responsible for the brilliant choreography of two critical dance numbers, which call for very special talent. Kudos to Asta Bennie Hostetter for finding such great costumes-on-a-budget for those numbers as well as the more everyday items that fill in character details. Providing unsettling atmosphere are the smothering walls of dried corn that almost exclusively comprise the minimal set by Arnulfo Maldonado.
At $25 a ticket, Bobbie Clearly is superb bang for the theatrical experience buck. The play is presented as part of Roundabout Underground at The Black Box Theatre and is sure to keep developing its strengths. If you are looking for a who dunnit or even a why, look elsewhere. However, this slow-burn storytelling and honest examination of what is ultimately unknowable will leave you with your thoughts turning. For tickets, on sale through May 6, 2018, and information visit https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/Bobbie-Clearly.aspx.