THE YELLOW BOATWRITTEN BY – David Saar
Resolute Theatre Project
BENJAMIN – Ethan Mullins
MOTHER – Tatiana Lucia Gantt
FATHER – Matt Lancaster
ENSEMBLE (JOY) – Ellen Eberhardt
ENSEMBLE (EDDY) – Joseph House
ENSEMBLE – Mark Eaglesham
ENSEMBLE – KT McGinn
DIRECTOR/SOUND DESIGNER – Taylor Mercado Owen
STAGE MANAGER – Madeline Morris
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR – Amanda Brown
LIGHTING DESIGN – Ryan Burkle
SET DESIGN – Steve Cave
COSTUME DESIGN – Ashley Peisher
PROPERTIES DESIGN – Kim Velten
MEDICAL CONSULTANT – Jocelyn Draper
POSTER ART – Messy Mouse Designs
Reviewed Performance: 9/7/2018
Reviewed by Travis McCallum, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Debuting Director Taylor Mercado Owen takes us on a journey in The Yellow Boat, a play about one young boys life, and his battle to survive against unfortunate circumstances.
For you see, the play is set in the 1980s— right when the disease AIDS is first being discovered. For a hemophiliac like Benjamin, he obtains the virus through a blood transfusion ultimately leading to his death.
Amy’s Studio of Performing Arts is not a large venue, seating less than 50 people in black plastic chairs. The stage intimately setup as a proscenium straight ahead with one big row, cut halfway in the center of the audience. I admit coming in, I treated this as an amateur production, expecting student performances still learning their craft.
But when Resolute Theatre Project Founder Araceli Radillo opened the floor with her announcements, I was very excited for what was to come.
In an explosion of raw energy, 7 talented actors present their roles to the audience. 4 ensemble members (Ellen Eberhardt, Joseph House, Mark Eaglesham, KT McGinn), the Mother and Father (Tatiana Lucia Gantt & Matt Lancaster), and Benjamin (Ethan Mullins) quickly took to stage.
Our narrator for the evening’s festivities in none other than the star boy himself. Clad in a yellow shirt, blue jean shorts & a giant yellow fanny pack, Mullins is a whimsy happy-go-lucky child of innocent youth.
His grin is bursting from the seams in exuberant excitement, easily amused at every given scenario. Throughout the entire show, we listen to his commentary on events and emotional reactions that unfold.
Much like a rocket flying at full speed, Mullins races down the middle row of the audience, pulling our heads to turn behind us. Then, in a flourish of colorful garments and smooth flowing tulle scarves, the ensemble creates the first of many metaphors to arrive.
Red! Blue! Purple! And of course… yellow. We watch events unfold in quick succession. Father discovers Mother is pregnant. Mother gives life to Benjamin.
Judging individual cast members, it was very hard for me to pick a favorite because everyone did so well. If I had to pick I was most impressed by Mullins mostly because of his stage time and the depth of character unfold. To begin, you will quickly appreciate how he embodies the boundless energy of youth.
That uncontrollable expression to be ON all hours of the day, so much so that his parents have a hard time getting any work done. His ability to whine and cry just like a baby is both impressive and annoying! As the plot progresses, we watch Mullin shift through feelings of cheer to worry, excitement to pain, and depression to acceptance of his fate.
His facial expressions are very clear to what he is feeling. I don’t know if it’s the stage makeup, lighting or the actor himself but as he gets sicker his body takes on the image of sickness. It makes you nauseous to your stomach and you can’t help but share in his pain.
The biggest challenge Mullins had to overcome was alternating between narrating the story to the audience and living in the scene. Breaking the 4th wall temporarily shatters the illusion that we are inside the story alongside Benjamin.
Fortunately, Mullins executed the transitions perfectly, never holding more than a beat or two. No doubt, the background activities grabbed our visual eye during the monologues.
One of the defining qualities making Benjamin such a likable character was his ability to turn any bad situation into a good story of make-believe, which can be seen in the countless doctor administrations he so loathed. There is no better place to see how he gained his optimism in grim situations than through his parents.
Gantt, dressed in her red leather jacket, pale blue jeans and red shoes nurtured the young Benjamin with enough maternal love to quell the mightiest of Gods. Her robust voice projected across the room, establishing herself as the dominant spouse.
She played both mentor, mother, cheerleader, provider and sailor aboard the Yellow Boat alongside her loving and supportive husband.
Contrast to the Mother stood Lancaster in his cloudy blue jacket, blue jeans and red shoes. He wore a silver necklace around his neck with a ring, which I surmised to be a token of affection from his beautiful wife.
I admit, I was a bit disappointed in Lancaster’s character at first glance, except for the wrong reasons. I had an expectation he was to be the breadwinner of the house, but in a truly magical way (director adaption-wise, or playwright progressive-thinking) Lancaster epitomizes the perfect man. Someone who is soft-spoken, sweet and caring. A man who is there for you, who listens and shares his feelings.
The dynamic between the pair is comforting to watch. They interact so intimately, playing off each other’s sentences in tandem, using physical closeness to further sell the family bonds concept.
You will have noticed early on how their clothing matches thanks to Costume Designer Ashley Peisher’s exceptional attention to detail. One note of interest is the period display hand-picked for each character, and perhaps the more metaphorical representation of color as a major component of the play’s themes.
I must admit, there was one hiccup between the mother/father duo which left me wanting a re-do. Their lullaby could have been more in sync— it honestly sounded better when one person was singing (On a side note, Lancaster has an excellent singing voice!)
Oh, the ensemble.
What can I say about this motley crew of 4 except they are AMEI-ZING!
As individuals, they are okay. But as a group, they are the powerhouse of the production. The ensemble has the hardest job of the show. The reason? Maybe it’s because they are wearing a dozen different hats at any given time.
Take McGinn for instance. One moment she is an ocean wave, guiding the yellow boat to its next destination. The next, she is a schoolteacher telling Benjamin’s parents how well he’s going to fit in with the rest of the students. And then she’s half T-Rex, mounting the back of her sturdy companion Eaglesham.
Indeed, the roles of the ensemble are many and their skills to swiftly navigate to and fro is a mighty accomplishment. The amount of blocking they needed to memorize makes me wonder if Owen was secretly trying to kill them in the process.
Collectively, their timing was on point, a pivotal responsibility of setting the pace for the entire show. One very important thing I enjoyed about the ensemble was their focus on Benjamin throughout the show. Even though they were all doing their own bits, they always reminded us in the audience who the show was really about. Everybody, everything was about Benjamin and his life.
Breaking down the ensemble individually, let me begin with Wellness Doctor Joy, played by the charitable Eberhardt. The moment Eberhardt blew her kazoo in defeat I was hooked on her character. Watching her unyielding perseverance to break through Benjamin’s resolute defeat was an absolute joy.
Thinking on it now, Eberhardt defines the essence of clownship— vulnerable, spontaneous, and above all… open-minded. Once Benjamin opens up, she enables him to rediscover his self-expression. If I had to describe Eberhardt in one word, it would be CREATIVE. FUN follows closely and it could not be more apparent than when she carries a nerf gun in her hands, barraging the audience in a frontal cone of frenzied assault.
One area I fell in love with is the white hippo “No.” The stuffed animal is a key piece to get Benjamin to open himself up again. However, I scrutinize that blocking decisions should remain consistent with the lines and actions of characters to drive believability. In one scene Joy says, “Maybe ‘No’ can come back tomorrow” tantalizing Benjamin. I was confused as to why she left No with him instead of taking the bait with her for the next visit. Call it an observation and call to attention for consistency!
To follow her fun nature, we are reminded of the comforting nature of Benjamin’s best friend Eddy, played by House. Benjamin meets Eddy in class one day and the two immediately have chemistry, admiring each other’s color choice.
They form their own signature salutation where they bump fists, wave their hands upward with jiggling fingers, whilst waddling their tongues in ridiculous babble. Sadly, the character personality of Eddy is fairly limited to his relationship with Benjamin, more as a pawn and less as a standalone character who could have his own show off set.
Nonetheless, House performs amicably as a child with fierce loyalty to his pal, despite the scary circumstances surrounding him. I was slightly confused on why in his last scene he bumped fists as if to say goodbye, then gave away the present, and then bumped fists again. It felt like an awkward moment in blocking for me.
A great part House played in the show was the sock puppet for in the children’s story part. He performed a wonderful comedic bit, reminiscent of Muppet style magic
One area Eaglesham sold above all his cohorts was in the teacher role as coach. He blasted on set with the macho male persona we so often see in sports coaches these days. With a bit of a southern drawl, Eaglesham trounced across the stage with a loud commanding monologue. I warranted a chuckle at his wacky character.
Of all the ensemble doctor’s, he left me feeling most uncomfortable. Eaglesham is rational, cold, calculating and all about business. Definitely NOT someone I’d want to be taking care of me.
And finally there’s McGinn. A tall lady with a wild mane of brown hair and thick-rimmed glasses wearing a red sweater that might make you think she was Velma from Scooby Doo. Her role is hard to pinpoint because she never had a central character, just like Eaglesham.
Her doctor plays the empathetic role inside the hospital and she has a brief stint as a teacher and student in Benjamin’s school days. Overall, I think she complements everyone’s scene excellently, adding value as a confident and composed member of the cast.
The lighting of the show alternated between crisp greens, blues, purples & a standard yellow spread across a 270 angle setup. Lighting Designer Ryan Burkle did a good job with the space and equipment he had, but I would have liked some more concentrated use of spotlights during the intimate moments.
Transition periods were always done in full light, along with the Benjamin’s narration. I don’t there was ever a point where there was a blackout during any scene. The challenge Burkle had going in was capturing the feelings of happy, sad, sick, and so on. Perhaps it was because of the equipment, but I could see so much more potential with this show.
Potential. That’s something that could also be expanded in the realm of sound too. Bless Director Owen for dual hatting sound design too. He chose to use a pre-recorded track, probably hidden away on a laptop equipped with a single speaker to play all the ambient music.
The problem: It was all placed to the left of the audience. The content itself complemented each scene nicely, like the blipping of a heart meter in the hospital. But honestly, the positioning was horrid. I would have much preferred they rig it above the curtain, or run two speakers on the left and right of the audience for symmetry.
Where the sound shined most was the actor pantomimes. Whether it be opening doors or rowing the boat, the ensemble was always quick to bring the scenes to life.
Lastly, I must give a big shoutout to Properties Designer Kim Velten for amassing quite a collection of props throughout the entire show. In the very back of the stage there is a black and gold treasure chest full of an immense amount of goodies used throughout the show.
The colored scarves, fabrics, present boxes, newspapers and so many more random items continued to pop up through the show. It was an actors play box. Anything you could imagine, you could find inside the box. I’m told Steve Cave handled the set design— of which I am again most impressed.
The open space of the stage really opened actor movement. Placing the ABC blocks against the wall allowed them to play passive participants throughout the entire show. Was it just me or were the colored blocked aligned with the same colored clothing the actors were wearing?
Perchance the Yellow Boat was THE set piece. It served as Benjamin’s shell… and also his coffin. I loved the painting work, the sturdiness, and the shape of the boat. It was a great find and a valuable asset to The Yellow Boat production.
My favorite part of the play was at the end when Benjamin is sitting up in the hospital bed with both his parents on each side. He asks his father what it means to die. It is in this one moment we are moved to a very emotional point in our lives. How does the father and mother react and answer this question? How do we answer this question for ourselves?
I really like this scene, because the vast majority of the show is a fast-paced adventure from one island to the next aboard the yellow boat. This metaphorical journey through Benjamin’s life is finally reaching its climax where acceptance and confirmation is happening. I feel like EVERYTHING slows down. The anticipation is building and what Lancaster says next will impact Benjamin. Guess what he says?
You’ll just have to come see the show to find out.
I will recommend this show to everyone for one simple reason: it’s a universal story that deserves to be told and heard. Lend your compassion, be entertained and share in the adventures of a young boy whose life was snuffed out from him at an early age.
Watch the onslaught of disease wring the life from him, clueless experts ‘try’ to solve a plight against humanity, and the human nature of family, friends and strangers find happiness even in the darkest of circumstances.
I must admit, for a first-time Director Owen has truly exceeded expectations. His expert guidance in blocking the set, coordinating all the various scene elements into a cohesive show, and understanding of the various themes and how they can manifest in a tangible representation in The Yellow Boat is truly extraordinary.
The actors too are talented and hard-working. They work well together as a supportive team and animate the show keeping the audience engaged 100% of the way. Benjamin is sure to bring you to tears at the end of the show.
Resolute Theatre Project
September 7 through September 16, 2018
Amy’s Studio of Performing Arts
11888 Marsh Ln, Suite 600, Dallas, TX 75234
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