Getting to the Gremlin theater had me running because even though Google kept telling me I was there, I wasn’t. Kudos to the Pagen trickster god that designed the lofts, studios, and brewery surrounding the place because the thrust stage was very hard to find.Once I got there, what I saw was worth the frantic journey. Gremlin Theatre’s Becky Shaw is a freaking trip: a head trip, a power trip, a road trip to parts of Rhode Island and Florida, and every other trip you can imagine.
The story is a lot but put simply, Beck Shaw opens with a family in transition. After the death of her father, Suzanna (Olivia Wilusz) needs both emotional and financial support from her adopted brother Max (Logan Verdoorn). With little support from his family, Max, the blunt pragmatist, must break it to his sister and mother that their late-father squandered most of the family’s fortune. Without Max’s help, both Suzanna and her mother will lose everything. A year later, Suzanna and her husband Andrew (Kevin Fanshaw) invite Max over for a blind date with Becky Shaw (Chelsie Newhard), a woman Andrew knows from work. The night ends in tragedy for Max and Becky, and over time unravels the core relationships of the very people who set them up.
The material can be read as a dark comedy or irreverent tragedy--the distinction largely depends on how you feel about the characters and the slew of morally dubious choices they make. To be frank, the show really is a series of subtle and not so subtle choices being made by the incredible cast of characters. Time after time we see everyone on stage reach a crossroad that either reveals who they want to be or who they’ve always been. Ordinarily, actions like this might make it easy to predict where the show is going, but the actors move so fast in personal strife and evolution it’s almost impossible to think about the future because absorbing the present is so gosh darn (I doubt my editor will let me swear) good.
Watching characters like Max, Suzanna, and Becky Shaw evolve or mutate or stay the same is incredibly engrossing. Wilusz’s role has her rise and plateau in various moments throughout the show. The actor has large moments where she shows who Suzanna is but also slips in little details to show her growth isn’t totally sincere. Suzanna wants to care, to give back, and feel genuine, but when she absentmindedly turns-off her husband’s indy music or mocks a patient’s accent we know her persona is a painful performance. It’s riveting to watch because the person she doesn’t want to be is Max. Verdoorn’s Max comes with a lot of nuances. He’s mean, but not cruel. Verbose, but insecure. Stable, yet frantic. We watch Max protect his family with one hand and bludgeon them with the other, all while they eagerly attack him. The back and forth between Verdoorn and Wilusz makes for a lot of laughs, but also gives the mean man moments of tenderness. He could be the bully, the martyr, or the orphan, but what we see transcends simple categories.
Becky Shaw, the namesake of the show, is a lot. Her character requires so much and Newhard embodies the chaotic neutral of this woman very well. Becky Shaw’s charm comes from her many flaws, but as any functional adult might tell you, a friend or lover with faults is as only charming as you are willing to help them. Her arc comes from the slow revelation of all of her faults, followed by everyone’s willingness to help her. To make things more interesting, there is a really funny racial dynamic to Becky’s faults that made this reviewer (a black guy) laugh a lot.
The Gremlin’s space can be challenging for any cast; thrust stages require a tad more when designing, but with a few furniture shifts and some well-placed canvas with changing projected backgrounds, designer Carl Schoenborn makes sure the audience never felt confused about the various settings in various time periods. What was confusing was the musical/visual shifts between scenes. The decision to play music followed by flashing projections felt odd. It never spoke to the energy of the scenes or helped set the mood. A blackout would have been fine, but maybe that’s too old fashioned.
Becky Shaw gives so much to its audience. With a cast that interacts with nuance, we take in every second eager for the next for nearly two hours. Watch this show and you’ll be sure to laugh at, judge, and question everything thing the morally dubious characters do.