Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Review: Grandpa, Me, and the Ensemble

There are people in our lives that shape us into the people we become later in life. For Laura Force Scruggs, it was her grandpa. In Punk Grandpa, Scruggs offers a loving homage to the man with an inappropriate joke at his disposal and a dance in his heart.
Originally performed as a one-woman show, Punk Grandpa takes a leap into becoming a multi-actor play, ensemble included. Maintaining the solo show structure, an actress takes on the role of Laura to narrate life as a five and three-quarter year old and her relationship with the man she called grandpa. With the structure what it is, it didn’t quite make the transition as seamlessly as one could hope. And it’s a shame because Scruggs’ story is quite lovely. It’s evident that the text has been lived in and is well polished. But by simply expanding the piece by having an ensemble of actors play the roles that Scruggs normally played herself did not land. Adapting the original story into a more typical play structure where narration can be included less frequently may have been the stronger choice for Scruggs. As it stands now, it’s muddied.
photo by George Rand
The clarity of storytelling can partially be blamed on the excessive amount of movement and scenic shifts. Director Janie Martinez used a trio of rehearsals cubes and a series of mismatched chairs to delineate location. And setting up the scene in the very tight space of Under St. Marks was more of a hindrance as it was distracting. There’s no safe zone where you can pretend that a scene isn’t occurring under the scene change. When there’s a theatrical light on, the stage is lit.
Martinez allowed her ensemble to explore the depth of characters, often finding some big choices along the way. Becky Chong as Laura is a great storyteller. Chong could easily tap in for Scruggs in the solo version if need be. Chong’s heart is what elevated her performance. As Grandpa, Ken Coughlin gave a durable performance. His movement was a bit stiff and static but there was a nice connection between Punk Grandpa and grandpunk. The quartet that comprised the ensemble was split down the middle of skill. Mitchel Kawash and Rachel Ladd may have been the strongest all-around performers in the entire piece. Their ability to create an array of fun and interesting characters gave the play life. And it all came down to facial expressions. Between Kawash’s big, infectious smile to Ladd’s knack for comedic scowl, the duo stood out.
It’s clear why transferring Punk Grandpa into a multi-actor play was desired. We want to see the man that Laura Force Scruggs wrote about. But to do so, it sacrificed the integrity and heart of the story. Punk Grandpa, in narration form, survives on less is more.