BWW Review: Watch Jonathan Sherman's WOMEN AND WALLACE at the HCC Studio Theatre - Part of the Tampa Fringe Festival
In its third year, the Tampa Fringe Festival, an open access performing arts festival, has taken over Ybor City for the week (it ends Saturday, May 11). There's so much to offer, such a variety, that you'll certainly find shows that align with your taste, personality and kinks. From Family Fringe's My Sewer Gator to the sordid world of Real-Time Bidding (which I hear is memorably unnerving) and Sexy Sexy Murder (which bills itself as "a disturbing yet fabulous alternative history of the Tampa Bay area"). From Innovocative Theatre's Thank You Notes (featuring the marvelous Marie-Claude Tremblay) to Man Cave (an Apocalyptic look at Climate Change where a last man sounds like God and winds up giving new Commandments to a group of aliens). From Edith Piaf (in Edith and Brel: The Impossible Concert) to Scott Swenson as a preacher in Preach!, Fringe shows can be nutty or poignant, meaningful or full of fluff. But they're always interesting.
The first Fringe show I have had the honor of attending this year was both wacky and dark, a play from the John Hughes era, the late 1980's: Jonathan Sherman's WOMEN AND WALLACE, which is being produced by the Turkey Creek Collective. It continues Saturday, May 4th (6:15 PM), Sunday, May 5th (7:45 PM), Monday, May 6th (8:30 PM) and Saturday, May 11th (9:00 PM) at the HCC Studio Theatre. Although the One Act is a mosaic of sorts, short scenes that flow into each other, it fits the Fringe Festival perfectly--surely, a troubled youth like Wallace can find a place in the world with other Fringe characters like Opera Mouse and Dandy Darkly.
WOMEN AND WALLACE starts off with Wallace, age 18, throwing a tomato at a young woman's dress, and then professing his love for her. (I wish the production used an actual tomato and found some way to "splatter on the dress" as indicated in the script to get the full effect, but I guess that was not feasible.) It then goes back in time twelve years, where six-year-old Wallace discusses his mom making peanut butter and banana sandwiches. He goes off to school, and his mother takes off her turtleneck shirt and then out of nowhere slits her throat with a large knife. And that's our welcome to the world of Wallace.
Growing up, Wallace has a difficult time adjusting to life and his relationships with women. His monologues, almost ramblings, are stated in a matter of fact way, even though what he's saying in them are pretty heavy-duty. He starts breaking orange juice glasses and has to see a psychiatrist. Through his teens, he awkwardly tries to be with women, but it comes across like Superman trying to relate to Kryptonite. He downs Mallo Cups and chugs Pepto Bismal mixed with seltzer. He gets his first kiss with Victoria, who runs away because he's going too fast in the romance department. "I mistook love for a girl who eats jujyfruits," he says.
Wallace is kind of like Antonie Doinel meets Mason Evans, Jr, with a bit of Christopher John Francis Boone thrown in for good measure. We follow him through his bizarre reality and his even more bizarre dreams (a Freudian roller coaster nightmare adventure that's like its own Fringe show within a show). We see him through the rocky highs and mostly lows of his boyhood and the women, young and old, who inhabit it with him--his grandmother, his psychiatrist, and the college girl who leads him in his first sexual encounter. It ends on a hopeful note, and then we're back at the tomato-throwing moment that opened the play.
WOMEN AND WALLACE is the definition of quirky, but with obvious poignancy as well. And it only occasionally stops for breath; it's one fast-paced show without ever feeling rushed (thanks to the skillful direction of Jesse Desrosiers).
Sherman's play is obviously well-written, but it's all over the place, with moments that I didn't connect with (I'm still processing the Freudian dream sequence). And at times it seemed very dated and not in an I-love-the-80's kind of way (a groaning AIDS-AYDS joke, for example, which would have seemed old even when the show was originally written thirty years ago). But never mind any misgivings that I may have with some of the script, because this production has two very key things to offer, that need to be seen: The performances of Nick Hoop and especially Kaylie Heyner.
Wallace is the perfect Nick Hoop part. He starts as an aggressively joyful second grader and becomes a confused teen teetering on darkness, all the while trying to make sense of a world he cannot comprehend (the opposite sex). He's the definition of awkward. Hoop speaks in a rat-tat-tat patter but he never loses the words in their machine gun rapid fire. And he's naturally likable onstage, exploding with robust energy; we root for his character, even when he's annoying, wanting him to find himself and a person to share his world.
The original script calls for eight separate actresses to play the women in Wallace's life. But a new face, Kaylie Heyner, gets to play ALL of them, and she creates a different persona with each. We are never confused with whom Wallace is with, due to wardrobe differences, changes in hairstyle, and mostly Ms. Heyner's performance, which shows off her triumphant versatility as an actress. I loved her Victoria, who reminds me of some of the girls I went to school with. The only character I questioned at first-the grandmother, who just didn't seem as old as she should be-grew on me as the show progressed. Her Lili and Nina--the women in Wallace's life at college--were distinct as well; it was like having two different actresses playing those roles. Heyner is so good here that I can't imagine having the show done any other way.
It's tough setting up for Fringe shows, because you don't have a lot of time for tech. Here, there were some minor lighting cue issues and a stumbled line or two, but nothing that got in the way of the story being told. One telephone scene needs to be reworked, because at first Wallace picks up the receiver and speaks into it (like he heard an invisible ring), or he forgot to dial the number of the radio station it turned out that he's calling. (Or, my guess, there was supposed to be a lighting cue and he's supposed to pick up the receiver in the dark.) But it turned out to be a very odd moment.
The music is well-chosen and very diverse, from Herb Alpert's "Whipped Cream" to the Violent Femme's "Blister in the Sun," from Squeeze's "Pulling Mussels" to Dr. Hook's "Sexy Eyes" (which I haven't heard in forty years). That said, I thought the Crystals' "And Then He Kissed Me" was too obvious a choice after a wacky first-kiss scene.
But the play was warped fun and meaningful, and best of all, it had me thinking about it on the ride home--always a good sign. So, while you are Fringe-hopping during this great week of theatre in Ybor, make sure to pave way for WOMEN AND WALLACE. I'm sure you'll be thinking about it--especially the performances of Hoop and Heyner--on your ride home as well.