Review: “Oedipus for Kids!”

“Oedipus for Kids!” is one of 30 musicals in this year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival, but you don’t have to fly across the country to enjoy it. The Valley’s own Nearly Naked Theatre is presenting the work through Sept 10 at  The Little Theatre at Phoenix Theatre.

Before you go, a few things you should know. It’s adult material not suitable for children. And it’s full of all the things you’d expect in a tale of Oedipus Rex — except the gore. There’s no blood during the eye scene — just curious squirts from a pair of cleverly concealed creamer containers — although a final scene does get messy when a character takes a baklava knife in the back.

I attended the Aug 21 performance with my daughter Lizabeth, part of her informal “farewell tour” before leaving for college theater studies in NYC.  I felt torn, knowing I’d have to miss the National Youth Theatre Awards at the Herberger Theater Center that night.

“Oedipus for Kids!” is directed by Toby Yatso, one of Lizabeth’s teachers for many years at Arizona School for the Arts, and Sunday was her only real opportunity to say “thanks” and share a bit of goodbye banter. It just didn’t feel right to miss this bit of his work after all he’s meant to my daughter.

Sunday’s audience included several older teens, including ASA theater major Nicole Speth, who seemed disappointed that others weren’t catching the show’s many references to Greek mythology. Speth was delighted about putting all those studies of Greek mythology during sophomore year to good use.

Don’t send your teens if you’re convinced they’ve never experienced foul language akin to the title of a Broadway show starring Chris Rock that closed just last month. “Oedipus for Kids!” is anything but politically correct when it comes to topics like suicide and disabilities. It’s the spoofs of political correctness, Greek weddings, children’s entertainment and actors who take themselves too seriously that make this show such a killer comedy.

Still, “Oedipus for Kids!” is tame by some Nearly Naked standards. Yatso describes it as pretty typical fare in terms of content, but notes that unlike other works from this theater company, there’s no nudity. Only underwear. And simulated sex behind a rack of costumes. That’s a relief.

I’m a big admirer of Nearly Naked’s work (and that of founding artistic director Damon Dering), though I don’t really have what it takes to hit every show. In quaint parlance, I suppose I’m a bit of a prude when it comes to artistry meeting anatomy. “Oedipus for Kids!” is perfect for those of us ready to dip only our big toe into the water.

Folks who relish the risque know that this is where to find it. Still, I expect to see more Nearly Naked shows than usual this season because their five-show line-up includes a tantalizing take on “Romeo and Juliet” and the local premiere of “Spring Awakening” (a joint venture with Phoenix Theatre featuring direction by Damon and Phoenix Theatre’s Robert Kolby Harper).

“Oedipus for Kids!” features book by Gil Varod and Kimberly Patterson, lyrics by Gil Varod and music by Robert J. Saferstein (who also provides additional material). It’s published by Samuel French, which offers a summary of the work — a play within a play — on its website.

Charles Isherwood of The New York Times describes “Oedipus for Kids!” as “a spoof of children’s theater, with some truly funny songs and endearlingly loopy performances from a cast of just three.” The three are members of a fictional theater troupe specializing in performing the classics for children.

After success with the likes of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Fuzzy Duck Theatre Company decides to tackle “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles. Seems two troupe members are in the middle of a nasty divorce, and the third is an actor with “questionable methods.”

Samuel French notes that “off-stage disagreements between the cast members spill onstage.” Think “Noises Off!” with less booze and more blood. Their description also mentions “flesh wounds” and “fornication” — making it clear that this is an adults-only piece.

I’m told that the show’s two writers contacted Nearly Naked after learning they’d be mounting “Oedipus for Kids!” — offering to share updates to the work. Apparently this is the first full-scale production to feature those updates, and Varod and Patterson will attend the final Friday performance to see the result (and stay for a talkback with audience members).

The cast of Nearly Naked’s “Oedipus for Kids!” includes Johanna Carlisle (Catalina/Mommy/Jocasta/Oracle), Doug Loynd (Allistair/Lauis/Tedipus/Sphinxy) and Chad McCluskey (Evan/Oedipus). Aya Nameth, set to graduate next fall with a B.A. in theatre performance from ASU, is the Catalina understudy.

Carlisle is a veteran Valley actress whose program bio notes that her favorite role is that of mom to her son Maxx. Maxx Carlisle-King is a gifted teen actor currently appearing as “Sketch” in the Valley Youth Theatre production of “Hairspray” at the Herberger Theater Center.

Loynd’s bio recalls boyhood days in California spent acting, singing and dancing, Also sewing — which explains his skill as costume designer for Nearly Naked’s “Oedipus for Kids!” It also offers an homage of sorts to the cats he credits with “urging him to continue his passion.” More proof that the best artists owe it all to their cats.

Chad McCluskey “hails from foggy Newfoundland” and studies “Secondary Education: Chemistry” at ASU. Let’s hope some well-meaning parents won’t use McCluskey’s bio to lecture their own child with acting plans about the practicality of things like teaching degrees and “real jobs.”

McCluskey’s comedic performance in “Oedipus for Kids!” is the one to beat this season. “Oedipus for Kids!” is a gem of a show. Yatso’s directing sensibilities are perfectly matched to this work, which also features his choreography.

Musical direction by Mark 4man kicks the energy of “Oedipus for Kids!” into high gear. It helps to have songs like “A Little Complex” and “Be Kind to the Blind” to start with. And volunteers willing to join cast members on stage for a song about the plague.

But 4man’s music tracks, created at home with his keyboard according to Yatso, give the feel of a live band. Songs played before each act opens make for fantastic foreplay. As it should be for the opening of Nearly Naked’s 13th season.

— Lynn

Note: Those of you seeking Oedipus tales for younger audiences can click here.

Coming up: “Titus Andronicus” opens the Southwest Shakespeare Company season

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