I was fortunate to have my mother in town last week and knew that I wanted to show her about my life in Minnesota by taking her to some really excellent theatre. I felt confident that a comedic story about family would be just the ticket; Stinkers at the Jungle Theater fit this bill well!
Currently a stay-at-home dad, most of Brad’s (John Catron) worries are caused by his small children, Oscar (puppeted and inflected by Reed Sigmund), Evie (puppeted and inflected by Megan M. Burns), and his ne’er-do-well friend Calvin (Nate Cheeseman). That is, until Brad’s world is turned upside down by the unexpected homecoming of his mother Joyce (Sally Wingert) from prison, along with her friend from the inside, Lilith (George Keller). Spoilers abound in any more discussion of the plot, but suffice to say much intergenerational (and illegal) hilarity ensues from the visit of these unanticipated houseguests.
The best part of Stinkers is the hysterical acting by Megan M. Burns with/as Evie and Reed Sigmund with/as Oscar. Plays about small children are hard to do because it is impossible for a two year old to hit their marks night after night after night. Instead of shying away from children as a topic for theatre, the Jungle makes the choice to use puppets instead--undoubtedly disturbing, but lovable, life-sized puppets. Chelsea M. Warren returns to the Jungle Theater again as their Puppet Designer, and once again she hits it out of the park. The children are sweet, creepy, and feel quite alive. Their design will put you in mind of #reasonmychildiscrying and memes about how scary children can be.
Like other plays where the actor and the puppet form a kind of hybrid entity (think Avenue Q), there is a constant gestalt between puppets and their actor handlers, which makes both more than they could be on their own. When little Evie hides her face in her father’s shoulder, the audience looks to Burns (with her amazingly malleable and expressive face) to experience Evie’s turmoil at that moment. When Oscar sheds tears over his “little bit of a rough day,” Sigmund’s body language and expressions give extra urgency to the little boy’s feelings; when added to the puppet’s small hands rubbing at his face, both actions trigger immediate empathy from the audience. We have all had a little bit of a bad day. Just because they have small bodies doesn’t mean that children don’t have big feelings themselves and incredibly large impacts on adult lives. Thus, showing the children’s real size with the puppets and their emotional/physiological size with the adult actors is highly effective. John Carton does a wonderful job acting alongside the puppets-- his fatherly affection, care, and sometimes exasperation manifest in his interaction with the children.
The script by playwright Josh Tobiessen (husband to Jungle Theater’s Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen) is full of quippy pathos that seems rooted in our present moment. This being said, several of his characters feel a bit one-note. In his program note, Tobiessen mentions how excited he was for Sally Wingert to play this role, but I couldn’t help wishing he had given her a bit more to do. While her performance is solid and engaging, Joyce’s patchy backstory and rather unreflective dialogue didn’t give much insight into the character. She comes off like Mr. Wormwood from Matilda; while this broadness may have been part of the point, it would have made the play even more relatable if she had a bit more depth (even if that depth was only about self-rationalizing her actions). This underdevelopment is also seen in Lilith’s characterization. George Keller gives Lilith as much depth as she can, but it felt like her transformation was told mostly through costume changes and a rushed monologue near the end of the show.
That being said, there is a wonderful physicality to the whole show that is bodily engaging. Nate Cheeseman’s Calvin is a huge source of comedic relief; in some ways he feels like another child Brad needs to deal with. Nate’s slapstick antics always getting him into trouble and his rather obvious disregard for his own bodily safety will make you laugh and cringe.
Near the end of the play there is a fantastic shot of Brad on the sofa with both Evie and Oscar on his knees, his mother in the background. In some ways, this moment captures the real essence of this play: family and our connection with our children, both when they are little and as they age. I am so glad I took my mother to this show, and I think your parents (or your children older than 8) would love it too! Stinkers runs at the Jungle Theater until August 18th.