The Ochre House Theater
Directed by Kevin Grammer
Music Director – Brian Shaddock
Set Designer – Matthew Posey
Puppet Master – Justin Locklear
Lighting Designer – Kevin Grammer
Scenic Artist – Isaac Davies
Costume Design – Carla Parker
Stage Manager – Jeff Keddy
Derek – Chris Sykes
Sloan - Marti Etheridge
Prescott/Death Puppet - Ben Bryant
Mimsy - Carla Parker
Poppy - Danielle Bondurant
Brody - Matthew Holmes
Brian Shaddock – Guitar, Banjo, Mandolin
Scott Shaddock – Keyboard, Guitar
Reviewed Performance 10/31/2015
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Life is short. Live passionately. Life happens while you’re making plans. Live each day as if it’s your last. Jimi Hendrix wrote, “The story of life is quicker than the blink of an eye, but the story of love is hello, goodbye.”
BLINK, by Kevin Grammer is not so much a question about the value of life, rather it’s a cautionary tale. Life will end before we’re ready. “What do we do with the time we have?” BLINK opened its premiere at Ochre House Theater in Fair Park tonight.
This 50-seat theater company is doing something right. Previous shows have gotten reviews from ‘well done’ to ‘outstanding.’ They are a small theater company that regularly shakes up the old assumptions about what good theater is. They take chances on new works and produce them in unique and exciting ways.
BLINK was actually a musical, of sorts. It wasn’t the type you’d imagine as a musical, but the story was told largely through song. There were musicians and actors sang to explore their feelings. It was a pretty eclectic batch of music, though, from ballads about love to hillbilly, bluegrass or maybe Appalachian songs about not needing love. There was a raw campfire quality to this music written and played by Brian Shaddock, Music Director, and his brother Scott. Lyrics were written by Carla Parker.
The songs, though rough, had some nice harmonies and singers gave them a true playing. It sometimes had the feel of a hootenanny. Unfortunately the Halloween night gremlins created some sound issues with instruments so backing music sometimes overrode lyrics or dropped the keyboard completely. Carla Parker’s lyrics dovetailed with the story and a few of the songs showed real pathos and the cast created some nice moments with these. Unfortunately there were no song titles, so it was hard to attach a lingering connection to any of them. I liked a song about Free Love and that hillbilly song about We Don’t Need Love was pretty funny. I suspect these actors could actually sing well in other environments, but this was not music that brought out the best in singers. They seemed to be a bit over-the-top in delivery and the ending offered a possible reason.
Derek is like many of us, living in a fast and furious world, self-absorbed, invincible, thinking life is forever and that there’s time for important things later. He’s irritable and ready to sue or evict anyone. Then he has an existential crisis as death sneaks onto his doorstep and he realizes everything could vanish – in a Blink. In a scene reminiscent of Scrooge’s visitors, Derek has an encounter with a being from the other side and finds a reason to change, a sword of Damocles hanging ever over his head, after which he tries to change everyone else, with great difficulty.
Chris Sykes played Derek, who may well be the most normal of the characters. Derek’s initial persona is loud, obnoxious and unlikeable, played with a visible anger by Sykes. Derek is a One Percenter, part of the hated ultra-rich. And he deserves that ridicule. But after he faces his own mortality, he bends to his life mission. Sykes began to soften everything from that point, vocally and physically, and as Derek swims against the tide of his own family, we see a man struggling to make sense of life. Sykes played frustration to an extreme as Derek finds his own family and friend more self-absorbed than he was and unwilling to change. To his credit, Derek keeps trying to the end and Sykes presented tenacity until the final revealing piece fell into place.
Sloan is Derek’s wife. She’s much like him in her love of lauding her wealth over everyone. Marti Etheridge played Sloan as a rich-bitch who expected the money-train to keep rolling. Etheridge allowed Sloan to show some love for Derek, though it was the kind that comes with conditions. As Derek comes to Sloan with his new outlook on their empty life, Etheridge revealed an ambivalence in her response so that Sloan both hears Derek’s honest attempts to talk, and finds it a bit enticing, but rejects his desire to get in the way of her party planning. There’s a stunning turn when we finally see Sloan in a new light and Etheridge drops her old attitude and reconnects with Derek.
Brody is Derek’s best friend from childhood and they are true buds. Brody is a bit of a space cadet, passionate about fast cars and even more focused on the pursuit of girls. Little else matters. Matthew Holmes created a personality for Brody with a party-hardy attitude, basically a caricature of every sleazy bar-surfer you’ve ever seen. Holmes constantly shifted eyes back and forth from a vacuous stare, never looking at anyone directly. He screws up his mouth and face quizzically each time Brody hears Derek spouting things that didn’t make sense to his simple life view. But Derek makes a few points that get through and Holmes took this despicable character and made him almost lovable, at least tolerable.
Danielle Bondurant created an ultimate hippie, Derek’s sister, Poppy. She’s a young woman who’s living on mushrooms and free love too much, and in almost every appearance she’s in tune with nature, or at least what passes for nature in her scattered mind. But Bondurant subtly gives the flower child little flashes of insight and moments of understanding when Derek tries to be matchmaker for her. In many ways, Poppy is closer to what Derek wants to become. Bondurant enacts some physical postures in her work, somewhere between yoga and sun worship, often in slow motion, and this gives a sense of the speed of life inside Poppy’s head.
Mom and Dad are shocked when Derek calls them that. They have always been Mimsy and Prescott to their kids and any sense of normal parenthood they might have had as the kids were growing is non-existent.
Carla Parker’s Mimsy is the epitome of a One Percenter, fabulously rich with all the wrong things. In her riding boots, leather waist coat and dressage hat, she cracked her riding crop to keep her whipped husband in line. It’s her house party that drives everyone forward in this play, the event everyone is preparing for and Mimsy is ever focused on that, with no time for her son’s silly protestations. Parker was vocally very strong and a commanding presence and this showed Mimsy’s position of power over her family, especially her husband. But it is Mimsy’s extraordinary haughtiness that allows Parker to play out the extremes of this character to show us the shallowness of Mimsy’s life.
Ben Bryant created the role of Prescott as an enormously haughty, super-rich wimp, dominated by his wife, even a bit effeminate. It’s a caricature of characters you might have seen in a Carol Burnett sketch. He made Prescott a clear lesson in how not to parent and provided an explanation why his son turns out like he does. Interestingly, in a turnabout, Bryant also played the Death Puppet with a strong, masculine voice. Operating a ghost-like puppet, he sets the path for what Derek must do and gives him the motivation of the sword and a time limit. There’s a certain vicious resolve in this puppet and Bryant gives him the voice that makes that clear, though he’s in a black suit and we couldn’t see Bryant’s emotional display.
The set was a bare stage with a single chair and a small movable triangle wall with scenic designs. As the wall turned the backdrop changed to transport the scene to a new location. And there were even a few pleasant surprises in there. Matthew Posey got the set design credit and Isaac Davies got a scenic artist credit. Kevin Grammer did light design and it was tightly integrated to the story, including a couple of specials for those surprising set twists.
Carla Parker designed costumes with some interesting twists of her own. Derek looked pretty normal for any modern young man in business. Sloan wore a tiger print silk top and shiny black leather pants. Brody wore his plaid shorts and a polo shirt pull-over that made him look like he was always on a boat cruise. Poppy wore a loose maroon top and a long blue denim dress, much like the girls of my hippie youth. However, these were just the main character costumes. Actors also played other roles, such as a black-clad figure in scenes around the Death Puppet, medical personnel in a hospital and even the parts of a car body.
The puppets were made by Puppet Master, Justin Locklear. There was a kind of creature that looked like a pet from Goonies that snapped at people operated by Parker as Mimsy and the ghost-like Death Puppet became a major character. It’s hard to describe it without revealing some plot, but they were well-designed and worked well with this story and Ben Bryant showed real talent in manipulating his Death Puppet.
This play was written and directed by Kevin Grammer. In direction, he assembled the company’s cast and infused them with this tale and I’d guess there was some collaboration between cast and director, which makes a cast buy in to the story. They did that and looked as if they enjoyed their playtime. Though there were a few rough moments for this performance, I think the production had a strong center which usually comes from a director with a strong vision.
Grammer’s BLINK posits an important message and uses a unique story line to bring it to the fore. It’s a worthy message, though one most of us are inundated with on social media these days. So I don’t know if it has the same impact it would to someone devoid of social connections. But there were plot surprises enough to keep it interesting and that engaged me. In this play the hero caves to the call for action by the Death Puppet without much struggle. Scrooge in Christmas Carol is faced with a similar challenge to his beliefs and lifestyle, but fights it mightily until fear finally forces him to discover the truth in his soul. Derek changes his world view with no resistance and his struggle is trying to convert his family to his new way of thinking. So there’s not as much drama to create an impact. But BLINK is also a comedy that uses light-hearted comic situations, sequences and humorous songs to deliver a message. And in this form the play works. It’s a light entertaining way to consider the consequences of lifestyle choices and find a message of redemption.
Grammer writes, “So take the time in the moments you have to appreciate the love you have, the friends you make, and the amazing world we live in. Because, in the blink of an eye….”
THE OCHRE HOUSE THEATER
825 Exposition Ave., Dallas, Texas 75226
Plays through November 21st
Wednesdays–Saturdays at 8:15 pm. Tickets are $17 at the door. Online Tickets are $17 (Students and seniors -$12). Pay-What-You-Can Night, Monday 11/09/15 at 8:15PM. For information and tickets, visit www.ochrehousetheater.com or call 214-826-6273.