Good intentions don’t make up for bloated metaphors
|Steep Theatre presents|
Review by Clint May
There’s a nice idiom in the world of Hollywood: “Cut what you love.” It’s meant to stop the message-creep that leads to bloat in so many, many movies when someone can’t give up affection for any particular thing. That said, here’s a short rundown of the various concepts we are meant to consider in Kenneth Lin’s Fallow: compassion for immigrant workers, compassion for killers, colony collapse disorder, coming-of-age (and what it means to be a man), escaping heartbreak, humanity’s obliviousness to the systems that support it, hope in the face of the hopeless, etc. Add to that some inexplicable twists and segues, shallow characterizations, and more than a little sermonizing and you have a muddled journey story that is only intermittently entertaining and frequently boring. The upside is that any audience member could probably become an apiarist with all the beekeeping metaphor/exposition that takes place at regular intervals.
This is actually two journeys intercut with each other; one of a son on a journey of self-discovery set in the past and the other of his “Mimsy”* (mother) to retrace the journey that lead to his murder. Elizabeth (the ever-talented Kendra Thulin) is the pampered daughter of a congressman living in Massachusetts with her doctor husband. On an ineffable (even to herself) whim, she has traveled to California to a small town where her son was murdered. Her she encounters “Happy” (José Antonio Garcia), an overeager immigrant cab driver who offers to take her to the prison and the juvenile detention camp where her son’s killers are held. In flashbacks, son Aaron (Brendan Meyer) writes his Mimsy handwritten letters from the small towns he visits working as a beekeeper for the summer. He’s just turned 20, and – despite his love for the job – is something of an anathema to his coworkers, who view this young privileged white boy as little more than a condescending interloper. Eventually skipping out of Cornell, he begins a cross-country journey as a bee-whisperer to find himself and ends up assimilating so well he is lynched by racists who mistake him for an immigrant worker.
In the present day, Elizabeth is having more than a little trouble getting to the prisons to face her son’s killers. When Happy’s cab breaks down, she ends up spending the night with his family. It’s an oh-so-convenient plot turn wherein we learn that their meeting is not as much chance as it is made out to be. That they both wait so long to reveal what they know retroactively makes the preceding look incredibly contrived and the rest just uncomfortable (it also opens a serious plot hole). That the twist about what Elizabeth knows is unnecessary to the story makes it all the more confusing when it’s revealed at the end of the first act. Like several scenes, it raises more questions than it answers. That we never get to see Elizabeth encounter the killers seems an unrewarding way to subvert our expectations and our patience.
There’s little to be had in a consistent tone from Director Keira Fromm, but that really comes back to Lin’s script. With dialogue this aware of its own multitudinous agendas, it’s hard for anything approaching naturalism to creep through. Even left to flounder between histrionic and quavering on the cusp of hysteria, Thulin is just mesmerizing to watch. Meyer isn’t given a character with enough depth to be interesting—a too-perfect, too earnest kid on a too clichéd Into the Wild story. Equally disappointing are so many ancillary characters from talented actors that seem to exist only for Aaron to talk at—a love interest (Anne Joy), his first boss (Peter Moore), and a soldier at a Bass Pro Shop (Nick Horst).
So many details take up too much time for no apparent reason that the mind is left reeling—Elizabeth’s affair with a stable boy, the father’s good photography skills, some stuff about horses as pets vs. companions, how strawberries taste, that nonsense poems are more than just “silly words,” wildebeests aren’t really carnivorous, Milton Glaser stamps, etc. The show collapses under the burden 90 minutes in and limps for another 30. If I had to pinpoint the theme, it’s the aforementioned empathy toward those who toil for our quality of life. Unfortunately, by the time it emerges, the heart and head are so weary from tracking the red herrings that it’s hard to care. To borrow another idiom (this time from the world of journalism), “Don’t bury the lead.”
Fallow continues through August 17th at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 4pm. Tickets are $20-$22, and are available by phone (866-811-4111) or online through OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at SteepTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
*A combination of “miserable” and “flimsy” coined for Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carrol. A possible commentary on Lin’s perception of Elizabeth?
Photos by Lee Miller
behind the scenes
Keira Fromm (director), Julia Siple (production manager), Lauren Lassus (stage manager), Alison Siple (costume design), Dan Stratton (set design), Heather Gilbert (lighting design), Kevin O’Donnell (original composition, sound design), Maria DeFabo (prop design), Samantha Umstead (make-up and wig design), Beth Schmeski (dramaturg), J. Christopher Brown (assistant director), Julie Allen (technical director), Allie Vaughn (asst. stage manager), Reid Moffatt (asst. sound design), Max Horowitz (asst. lighting design), Lee Miller (photos).