Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Helvetica
Tesseract Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's review of Hedwig and the Angry Inch


Katie Palazzola and Kelvin Urday
Photo by Jackie Zigler
An Off-Broadway theater has scheduled the official premiere of Will Coleman's new play about a children's author, restless to be born out of each circumstance of her life. That premiere is set for the Wheelhouse Theater Company in New York this summer.

But oddball, heartwarming little Tesseract Theatre in St. Louis has managed to score the unofficial "pre-premiere" of this quiet, intriguing 90-minute show. And New Yorkers can look forward to a great cerebral workout this summer, as three actresses portray the main character at different points in her life.

The upshot of it all seems to be that the fables we tell children are as valid as any modern religion, and may in fact be superior, because they're more direct: accommodating the worst in life, while allowing for the possibility of the transcendently great as well. The implicit warning, though, is that fables are human creations, and may lead to a strangely tragic, god-like detachment.

It all begins with a comical scene in which two very modern parents introduce themselves to their new baby, hovering awkwardly over a bassinet. On the one hand they don't want to force their authority or even affection on the newborn. And on the other they want to be totally honest about just how strange and uncomfortable the little girl's world will inevitably turn out to be.

And how right they are.

Andrew Rea and Julianne King are those hyper-sensitive parents, but the enduringly warm presence (in most of Helvetica's life) is supplied by a teddy bear. Kelvin Urday is infectiously playful as that sweater-vested, bow-tied companion, also serving as the show's narrator. But his eventual fate strikes one of the most painful notes in the play, as his owner struggles to be free of every attachment.

It's like the chilly side of Zen, where the antagonist to development is too much affection, which means it's often heartbreaking. Katie Palazzola is the adult Helvetica, and her sometimes pensive performance suggests a woman wincing, with one hand held out in front of her face, in the familiar writer's shield against the world.

Brittanie Gunn directs, raising so much humanity like waves in spite of Helvetica's dodging, that even when we know she's apt to sabotage her own happiness, we understand her subtle cringing, at simply being alive.

Ashley Netzhammer is the child-version of this children's book author, going on great adventures with her teddy bear. Elsewhere, she acquits herself as a ballerina in one of the fables that passes by like a leaf in a stream.

Maurice Walters II plays her surprisingly idealistic husband, a busy banker at a huge Wall Street firm, and his first date with Ms. Palazzola's Helvetica is surprisingly fresh and exuberant. But the relationship proves emotionally horrifying, for the now familiar reasons.

Michelle Dillard is the oldest Helvetica. And it's a bit confusing at first. She's a black actress, but you might say casting her in the role reinforces the idea that you can reinvent yourself more than you could ever possibly imagine, divorcing even from your own race.

All the middle-aged author's pain and wincing are gone in the character's final, most mature incarnation. All the external things (and people) that could hurt her, she's done away with, and the only ones that can finish her off are what she was born with. In that, she's finally found comfort.

It's often overlapping and back-and-forth in time, by the way. Sometimes hard to understand, but very easy to respect.

Don't wreck it, New York.

Through April 10, 2016, at the Regional Arts Commission (across from the Pageant Theatre), 6128 Delmar Blvd. Allow extra time, because of continuing work on the Loop's new trolley project, and the inevitably limited parking. For more information visit www.tesseracttheatre.org

Players
Michelle Dillard: Future Helvetica
Julianne King: Mother/Patient/Illustator/Shelter Employee
Ashley Netzhammer: Past Helvetica
Katie Palazzola: Present Helvetica
Andrew Rea: Father/Doctor/Agent
Kelvin Urday: Myron
Maurice Williams II: Husband

Crew
Director: Brittanie Gunn
Stage Manager: Michelle Henley
Set Design: Katie Palazzola
Set Construction: Alex Hylton
House Manager: Bryan Connelly


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