New play is crammed with too many ideas to cohere
Published: January 15, 2014
Where The Whangdoodle Sings
Written by K. Frithjof Peterson
Directed by J.D. Sivert
Through Jan. 19 At the Theatre Project
In a culture where so many plays, movies, and TV shows are lacking in original ideas, it seems churlish to complain about a show that has too many. But the Generous Company’s world premiere of Where the Whangdoodle Sings at the Theatre Project is so overstuffed with ideas that they get in each other’s way and make impossible the satisfying pattern of a successful play. K. Frithjof Peterson’s script is so inventive and ambitious that you keep rooting for it throughout the show, even though it ultimately trips over its own feet.
What is a whangdoodle? It’s a mythical, scary creature first mentioned in 19th-century American folk tales and later popularized by 20th-century children’s author Roald Dahl. In Peterson’s version, it’s a giant bird who walks on stilts, carries a hobo sack on a stick, and uses profanity the way most people use commas. This whangdoodle (William R. McHattie) shows up uninvited one day at the Milwaukee studio of a 30-year-old stained glass artist named Benj (Jon Kevin Lazarus). Benj is having a tough time because his bullying older brother Cash slipped on some ice during a shoving argument with Benj, hit his head, and now lies in a coma in a hospital.
In an effort to deal with his guilt, Benj visits a tattoo parlor and asks the 20-something owner, Voula (Ren Marie), to ink on his back a picture of Cash’s favorite animal, the whangdoodle. But every time Voula digs her electric needle into Benj’s skin, both the needler and the needled get sucked into a disturbing hallucination of Cash’s head hitting the ground. They try reversing roles, but then they’re subsumed by a vision of Voula’s father sticking his head in an oven while Voula sleeps upstairs.
Voula’s most treasured token of her father is a baseball signed by all of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves. One night in her kitchen, the same kitchen where her father committed suicide, she is visited by Bad Henry (Will Carson), who is not Hank Aaron but rather the legend of Hank Aaron. Bad Henry is worried that he will disappear once Barry Bonds breaks Aaron’s lifetime home run record and thus eclipses the public’s memory of Aaron. The whangdoodle is similarly worried that he will be transformed into a sanitized, neutered children’s toy by the big movie studio planning an animated film about him.
So the two human characters are trying to rewrite the stories of their personal traumas in order to get on with their lives while the two mythological characters are trying to prevent someone else from rewriting their stories. These themes are made explicit, often overly explicit, by dialogue that waxes philosophical about the importance of shaping and owning our own narratives.
When it comes to demonstrating the importance of our personal myths, tattoos, stained glass windows, cassette tapes of old baseball games, and obscene hobo songs are promising metaphors. So are the stories that would-be lovers tell each other when they first meet, as Voula and Benj do at the tattoo parlor. Where the Whangdoodle Sings is full of promise, but the promises are not always kept.
For one thing, when you’re working with fantasy, it’s essential to make perfectly clear to the audience what the rules are in your imagined world. Peterson never does that. It’s never clear what particular act might rescue each of the four characters from his or her dilemma. We never know what might be the equivalent of Prince Charming kissing Sleeping Beauty or Frodo tossing Sauron’s ring into Mount Doom, so we can never tell if the characters are getting closer to or further from a resolution.
Director J.D. Sivert’s cast works hard to wrestle the script to the ground, but they are only intermittently successful. As Voula, the long-limbed, short-haired Marie is very good at being hard-edged and at being vulnerable, but has trouble showing us both at the same time. As Benj, the red-headed, boyish Lazarus is convincing as the young, naive artist but doesn’t seem to mature as much as the script suggests. As the whangdoodle and Bad Henry, McHattie and Carson have enough brash swagger to intimidate us in the audience as much as they do Voula and Benj. But they never evince much sympathy for the troubles of their human partners.
Peterson is so intent on exploring both sides of our personal stories—not only the way they can liberate us but also the way they can trap us—that his message becomes so nuanced and it ends up being no message at all. Perhaps he feels that’s the way real life is: a jumble of contradictory tendencies. But we don’t need more real life as it is from our art; we have way too much of that already. We need real life reduced and clarified, and that’s what Peterson never delivers.
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