BWW Review: Bold & Beautiful I AND YOU Shines at Milwaukee's Next Act Theatre

BWW Review: Bold & Beautiful I AND YOU Shines at Milwaukee's Next Act Theatre

"I and this mystery, here we stand." - Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Anyone who's taken a poetry class knows that there's so much more to poetic words than meets the eye. If you look the right way, there's often something grand underneath - a hidden meaning waiting to be discovered through focused reading and an open mind. Lauren Gunderson's soul-stirring I and You is indeed a poetry all its own.

It's the funny, heartwarming, and - eventually - mind-blowing story of a day in the life of Caroline and Anthony, a pair of high school students assigned a Walt Whitman poetry project for English class. Caroline, who has suffered illness her entire life, has been homebound for months. Despite her spunk, whip-fast wit, and dreams of someday being a magazine photographer, she's losing her will to care about a life so threatened by disease. Anthony - a devotee of Walt Whitman, Coltrane, and Pop Tarts, with boyish charm for days - wants to both finish the poetry project and crack Caroline's hard outer shell.

The two-person I and You takes place exclusively in Caroline's bedroom, making for an intimate experience that leans nearly all its weight on the actors. Luckily for the Next Act Theatre, they've found an exceptional pairing in Cristina Panfilio and Ibraheem Farmer. Panfilio's teenaged Caroline is utterly spot-on, from her snarky tone to her iPhone fixation. The audience rides along with Panfilio on Caroline's roller coaster of emotion: defiant, vulnerable, hopeful, and despairing. It's an intensely-felt and fearless performance; hats off to Panfilio, one hundred times over.

Farmer's Anthony is every bit the charmer who appears to have it all figured out. He's one part popular jock, one part jazz-loving and poetry-spouting sensitive type. With Farmer in the role, it's easy to believe this kind of guy actually exists. His sweet performance is laced with hints of mystery, as one wonders what truly makes this seemingly-perfect specimen tick. What comes to light in I and You's heart-pounding final moments is indeed an underlying, poetic grandeur that was ever-present from the start. But through Farmer's subtle portrayal, under the smart direction of David Cescarini, Anthony's secret is safe until the very end.

To say any more would risk spoiling what playwright Lauren Gunderson has so brilliantly crafted. During a Talk Back following the performance, Panfilio and Farmer raved about Gunderson's writing. She writes real people, precise in her verbiage down to every last "like," "um," and "but." Such superb writing, Panfilio says, invests an actor in the story, so that the ensuing emotions come easily.

This is a genuine play by genuine people - people who care enough to thank the Talk Back audience for choosing to spend an afternoon at the Next Act Theatre when they could have been anywhere else in Milwaukee. But it's really Milwaukee who should be thanking the creatives behind I and You for bringing such beautiful and brave poetry to one local stage. This awe-inspiring production is as Walt Whitman writes: "Surely far different from what you suppose."

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