Encore Michigan

Puzzle Piece tackles a beast of a jigsaw with “The Boy Who Cried”

Review October 11, 2015 Frank Anthony Polito

The Boy Who Cried feels like an important play. The comedic drama, receiving its North American premiere at Puzzle Piece Theatre, takes on the subject of depression and mental illness by turning them into a myth-like story involving a boy who is believed to be a werewolf. The playwright, Matthew Osman, set out to “write about the experience of depression and its treatment…about archaic and disordered approaches to mental health by creating a situation that was so extraordinary as to be absurd.”

It’s an interesting premise. A young girl goes missing. The mother of the boy, who suspects her son’s culpability in the girl’s disappearance, calls in a Protection Officer, who suspects the boy is a lycanthrope and, with the assistance of his two henchmen, sets out to prove the boy’s guilt. Under D.B. Schroeder’s direction, the production feels like a horrific fairytale being brought to life. The set, with its cold tile floor and slanted table, the stark lighting, rigged on beams and poles, and the blasting industrial music (all credited to Schroeder’s design), combined with the actual setting at Slipstream Theatre Initiative’s new home in Ferndale (a large room with high ceilings and an entire wall of glass block windows) add to the institutional feel and create an insane asylum-like atmosphere. From the get-go, it’s all very ooky-spooky.

The actors are all very good, as well. As the boy’s mother, Mrs. Elvin, Julie Fuller exhibits both love and concern for her troubled son. Fuller gives us moments that are both funny and tender, and she hits the highs and lows of anger and frustration. As Sam, the boy, Joshua Palmer is both charming and alarming. On the surface, he seems innocent enough, with his boy-next-door looks and slight build. Yet the shock of light brown hair hanging down over his eyes, and the eventual rage he displays, makes one question whether this boy could really be a beast. Sergio Mautone shines in his role of the Protection Officer. From the moment he sweeps in and takes over, this guy is in total control. That is, until he’s not. And this is when the dude gets scary! The dog whistle he wears round his neck calls to mind the cross of a Catholic priest, and Mautone’s interrogation scenes with Palmer play like something out of The Exorcist. Rounding out the cast as Spencer and Talbot, Vincent Sabatini and Joseph Sfair, respectively provide much of the play’s comic effect, as men-in-black types brought in by the Protection Officer to do his dirty work, albeit reluctantly.

Now for the play itself… I won’t say that I–hated–it. But, to be perfectly honest, I just didn’t–get–it.

Before the performance began, I read Schroeder’s director’s note, in which he describes how he first came to hear of “The Boy Who Cried” after it premiered “on the London fringe” in 2014. This should have been my first clue. When I lived in New York City, I spent a lot of time (as an actor, playwright and reviewer) attending the FringeNYC, and what I found is that there’s a definite type of “fringe” play. A lot of them resemble The Boy Who Cried in their subject matter and structure — and a lot of these “fringe” plays I just don’t understand.

Literally.

As an audience member, I sit there in the dark watching a story being told in front of me, and I simply cannot follow along. What makes it all the more frustrating, as was my experience with The Boy Who Cried, is that it feels like the actors are all clued-in, like they know–what–they’re talking about, and they know–why–they’re talking about it. But, for whatever reason, I don’t! And I don’t think I’m alone in that.

The other problem I had with this production, and not so much with the play itself, is that the playwright, who is British, uses words in his script like “jumper” and “bin” in his dialogue. He structures his sentences in such a way that they sound very British when spoken. And yet Schroeder has directed all of his actors to speak with American accents. I couldn’t help but think that had they gone the full-on British route, it could have made this play just a tad bit creepier.

All this said… I stand by my initial comment: “The Boy Who Cried” feels like an important play. Please go see it for yourself and decide.

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