Sunday, September 12, 2010

THEATER: How My Mother Died of Cancer And Other Bedtime Stories

[Part of the Fringe Encores Series]

How My Mother Died of Cancer and Other Bedtime Stories is all over the place, and that's OK: it can't be easy to write a personal piece about the death of your mother. But there's a limit to how far you can get by on sympathy, and does Chris Kelly really want his play to succeed based on pity? The schema he's following is that of Lisa Kron's Well, in that as Kelly's stand-in Kate (Elizabeth Romanski) attempts to grieve by recreating those last few months onstage, only to be constantly interrupted by her father (Mike Boland), who hates the theatricality of it. And that's the awful problem at the heart of How My Mother Died: there's a lack of sincerity. Kate is not Chris, and there's a troubling layer of "theater" in that the people playing Kate's circle--brother Tim (Jim deProphetis), comic gay friend Trent (Josh Hemphill), stoner-ish Barry (Dylan Kammerer), and ditsy Lena (Brianna Tyson)--are supposed to be her actual friends and family, whereas her mother (Sharon Wyse) is, obviously, being played by an actor. But as directed by Laura Moss, everybody comes across, first and foremost, as an actor, and that makes it hard to forgive the often intentionally amateurish production. (Kate reminds us that the budget is tight.)

It's not easy to get past this convention, since Kelly spends so much of the show stressing it--a defense mechanism, perhaps, gone amok. But on the other side, there is quite a deal of whimsical coping: the mother plays "Wheel of Cancer" and, after being hooked-up to a breathing machine for her lung cancer, is forced to play charades to communicate. Trent, who loves being the center of attention, nicely hams up scenes (and accents) where he likens doctors to mechanics, turns a eulogy into a Mad Lib, and spoofs late-night exercise infomercials: "Tumors of Steel." Tim makes a great straight man for all these antics, allowing Kate to turn away from lip-sync versions of "She's a Lady" or Music Man-like choreography, and to actually relate memories--like those bedtime stories that give her such reason to miss her mother.

The best moment in How My Mother Died of Cancer comes as the father attempts to recreate his last moments with his wife, only to get frustrated by trying to remember the lines his daughter has written for him. At that point, the actor playing the mother speaks directly to him, telling him not to worry about the script, to just speak, and to speak from the heart. It's good advice: would that more of Kelly's show felt brave enough to do exactly that, to stand by its conventions (or its discarding of them, ala Young Jean Lee's Lear) and to speak through them, instead of merely at them.

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