BWW Reviews: Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company's CARNIVAL ROUND THE CENTRAL FIGURE is Bold and Innovative
Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company is currently producing Diana Amsterdam's new, darkly comic drama CARNIVAL ROUND THE CENTRAL FIGURE. As part of their mission, Mildred's Umbrella puts on "bold, innovative and fresh theatrical works," and CARNIVAL ROUND THE CENTRAL FIGURE perfectly upholds this banner. The work is a cacophony of noise and events told in a seemingly stream-of-consciousness chronology as it leaps through time and place with the bat of an eye. Some parts occur 10 years prior to the central plot, while others occur simultaneously. In effect, Diana Amsterdam's writing and Jennifer Decker's directing creates a living, breathing fever dream or bizarre, almost surreal events that deal with how we cope with mortality and death.
The play utilizes abstractly surreal imagery and moments to explore the uncertainty that death forces us all to face. One character is seemingly the harbinger of death, extracting vital fluid from a bed-ridden central figure. Yet, another character is softer and more gentle as she plants the kiss of death-which is accepting that one is dying-on the central figure. Interspersed is a quest for immortality and forcing the body to understand that as long as "I am...," then I cannot die. Also, there is the spiritual side, seeking to ensure redemption before journeying into dying. The play jumps abruptly from one moment to the next, making the audience think quickly and measure each moment's importance after the conclusion on the concise 70 minute performance. The only downside to this stylized portrayal is that some moments seem to drag while others fly by almost too quickly.
Key performances were well delivered by the cast, and John Dunn's intensely televangelist Preacher is definitely the most memorable. He is bold in his convictions, yet seems to offer no comfort. His religious practices instead force people to openly expose their darkest and most uncomfortable secrets to Jesus while being recorded for national and international broadcast. Likewise, he is dressed in a fiery red shirt, making one perceive him as more of a devil than as a holy man.
Other strong performances include Arianna Bermudez's Kate, which is grounded in reality. She doesn't get caught up in Courtney Lomelo's charismatic Maryanne's quest for immortality, and is unafraid to repeatedly ask "Doesn't everybody die?" Matt Benton's Richard supports Kate, but does his best to avoid confrontations on the touchy subject at hand. Karen Schlag's Sheila is unable to accept that her husband is dying and desperately holds on to the false hopes that he will recover. Elizabeth Marshall-Black's Becky is a mother seeking spirtual comfort and guidance, and her performance tenderly tugs on our heart strings. Lyndsey Sweeney's nurse is a constant foreboding presence. Lastly, Dani Luers, Shanon Adams, Eddie Edge, and Miguel Garcia are all fascinating and disturbing as the overzealous choir members for the "Speak Directly to Jesus" show and an intimidating and creepy masked chorus of sorts.
The design elements of the production work well together to heighten the experience of the performance. Greg Dean's Set Design is minimalistic. Two small screens flank a large central screen. On the small screens are videos of a heart monitor that cross fade into specific images referenced by the characters. The central backdrop is used for projections, some are mood intensifying imagery and others pre-recorded or livevideography. Lindsay Burns' Costume Design is rich in bold, zany color choices that jar the audience, but also aide in our ability to focus on each of the characters. Andy McWilliams' Sound Design is atmospheric and impactful, often elevating the tension and unease that the performances stir up. Light Design by Brian Wallace is mostly harsh whites, yet concise color washes, especially in red, are nicely affective.
Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company's CARNIVAL ROUND THE CENTRAL FIGURE is an interesting treatise on death and dying. Despite a few moments that lag, it maintains the audience's interest and draws disturbed yet delighted chuckles. My only true criticism about the play is that I don't feel like Diana Amsterdam says anything new about how we confront and tackle death. Her exploration of the topic is novel in its approach and makes for entertaining theater but it doesn't seem to present any new ideas.