EDITOR’S NOTE: Jesse R. Gephart is a Raleigh, NC actor, director, and theater and music critic. To read all of his Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/jesse-r-gephart/.
It’s always a pleasure to watch budding artists grow and form, strengthening their talent. It’s more of a pleasure when they continue to share their abilities with hometown audiences.
Awkward Elephant Project, helmed by Raleigh-native Alex Tobey, is back for their third production. AEP, under the former title “Necessary Dialogues,” gave a strong and memorable first impression with Stephen Karam and P.J. Papparelli’s columbinus, The Independent Weekly named Mr. Tobey a Best Director of 2010 and honored the columbinus cast as well as Best Ensemble. AEP’s second production, the original Blackout, as part of Burning Coal’s 2012 Politheatrics Festival, was also hailed.
But enough of the company’s lauded past; let’s talk about the present. Daniel Talbott’s coming-of-age story, Slipping, is currently on stage at Burning Coal Theatre’s Murphy School Auditorium; and it proves that not only did Awkward Elephant overcome the sophomore slump, but they seem to be gaining solid footing. Mr. Tobey’s direction here is clear and well executed: unique, bold, and even playful. One can only hope that the training he is receiving at Carnegie Mellon will further stabilize and expand upon the base he has already constructed.
Slipping is a story that should be seen, though it may prove a struggle for those with faint hearts or delicate sensibilities. But those are the very ones who should attend this story of queer youth striving, fighting; yearning for normalcy. William Bednar is Eli, a gay youth who is still reeling from the unexpected and violent death of his father when he and his mother, Jan (Christine Hunter), move from San Francisco to the Midwest, where she takes a new job at a university in Iowa.
In San Francisco, Eli had Chris (Alejandro La Rosa), an emotionally unstable and violent friend, who wishes Eli were a girl in order to justify the sexual feelings he has. This is the most troubling storyline, and frequently had my chest tight. It is troubling not because it is poorly structured or unnecessary to the plot, but conversely, it is incredibly vital to the understanding of what we do in order to achieve happiness or to feel accepted, what we will succumb to or endure in order to feel whole.
La Rosa delivers solidly, and gives Chris as much empathy as he can. You are never rooting for him — in fact, at times, he deserves a swift kick in the crotch — but you come to understand that he’s got a backpack full of problems that he carries around with him, and all he wants is to understand.
Bednar is an extraordinarily solid center around which this story rotates. He’s physically beautiful and beautiful to watch navigate Eli’s tumultuous journey. He has room to grow, he has footing to find, but his commitment and unflinching dedication keep Slipping from turning into an After School Special. Though he attends the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, I hope some local directors will take note of him.
In Iowa, Eli meets Jake (Matthew Mollenkopf), the All-American, sports-playing, doe-eyed dude. Jake’s own sexual awakening to Eli is not a new story being told, but it’s definitely sweet — and it veers into something like a gay Lifetime movie at times, but I’m not one to shake a stick at a saccharine love story, especially one that allows me to relate so deeply.
When Eli pushes Jake away, you want to shake him, rouse him to see what he’s got standing right before him. When Jake shows up in the hospital room with flowers tucked behind his back, your heart swoons. “The course of true love never did run smooth,” but it’s certainly worth watching these two opposites attract.
Through it all is mom, Jan (Christine Hunter), whose own sexual awakening in the form of younger men infuriates Eli; and we feel almost rightfully so. Jan loves her son, that’s clear: she inquires about any potential boyfriends; she pains to see Eli struggle; she wants both of them to be happy, to come out of the tragedy unscathed, though she knows that’s not possible.
Hunter turns in a fine performance, though she felt a bit wooden at times — not as relaxed and settled as her other ensemble members. Whether this was a choice or an opening-night jitters, I’m not sure; but should she find her stride, the group would come together seamlessly.
Some of my only real hang-ups revolved around the technical elements: a jerky, strange lighting design by Kat Stephenson that threw colors on the floor or had instruments focused in odd areas. Whether it was actors not finding their light, or a designer who is still honing her craft, it needed some serious ironing-out.
There is also a problematic sound design with ambient sound that didn’t seem to match scenes at all: Eli had a stay in a very loud hospital that may have been near a motorway? And underscoring scenes in theater is a gamble and can come across like manipulation (“FEEL. HERE.”), but luckily most all of them work here. Strong costume design helps to flesh out and uniquely identify each character (I’m seriously jealous of Eli’s digs), though Christine Hunter’s heels could have been flats; her walk was so loud it was distracting.
Small quibbles aside, go buy your ticket to Slipping right now, and make sure to bring a friend or three. The small opening-night audience, though not altogether surprising, should have been more. This show deserves to be attended. You only have two more chances to see this wonderful production full of up-and-coming talent; I look forward to seeing more from Awkward Elephant Project and all the artists, and so should you.
Awkward Elephant Project presents SLIPPING at 8 p.m. Jan. 5 and 2 p.m. Jan. 6 in Burning Coal Theatre Company‘s Murphey School Auditorium, 224 Polk St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27604.
BOX OFFICE: http://www.etix.com/.
Slipping: http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=4157 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Daniel Talbott: http://oob.samuelfrench.com/index.php/daniel-talbott/ (Samuel French Off-Off-Broadway Short Play Festival).
Jesse R. Gephart is a Raleigh, NC actor, director, and theater and music critic. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.
To read all of Jesse R. Gephart’sTriangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/jesse-r-gephart/.