Oedipus For Kids
nytheatre.com review by Jon Stancato
September 16, 2006
Hear this Hellenists: Oedipus for Kids is most certainly not for children, nor is it for anyone who still gets chills readings Sophocles's original. That said, this new meta-musical, staged by the purely fictional Fuzzy Ducks educational theatre company, had the audience quacking (yes, literally quacking...don't ask) in their seats; it is funny, very funny, and triply so when it occasionally manages to be as deliciously "wrong" as its title promises.
The Fuzzy Ducks are a publicly funded seven-year-old troupe helmed by power hungry artistic-director Gavin. Often vying with him for creative control is Laura, a veteran performance-artist with a second wave feminist agenda. She often finds herself sexually entwined with their show's eponymous tragic hero, the mimbo Reed (a recent graduate of the Mentos acting seminar, where he learned to "keep things fresh and full of life"). The trio is in a tizzy because representatives from Beanz, coffee for kids, are in the audience evaluating sponsorship of a Fuzzy Ducks national tour.
Given the nature of the show's framing device, all you really need to know about Oedipus is that it is as disastrous a children's theatre premise as the Ducks' other works: "Uncle Tommy's Cabin" and "Titus Andronicus Bakes a Cake." Though some trimming is in order (especially the offstage scenes revealing interpersonal tensions that are already apparent), the book by Gil Varod and Kimberly Patterson is a light punny romp riddled with Greek references from Icarus to baklava ("Whatever Oedipus touches, Oedipus wrecks"). The duo is at its best when they wickedly try to skewer specific children's theatre tropes. At one point, the actors beg the children/us to "quack" to bring the Sphinx to life a la Tinker Bell. We quacked our hearts out, but alas the Sphinx succumbed to the Theban plague.
Varod deserves another nod for his lyrics, if only for successfully rhyming Oedipus at least a dozen times. Yet, he also wrings wit from clichés by using line breaks to stagger the delivery of his dirty jokes. He rhymes Slurpees with herpes and Oedipus's first act ballad is about how his "life got a little complex." Unfortunately, aside from some titillatingly tasteless lyrics in "Be Kind to the Blind" (for which Jessica Reddish has provided brilliantly perverse choreography) he never really pushes the audience far enough to question its own laughter.
The music, composed by Robert J. Saferstein, too often recalls the unnuanced vamping of Whose Line Is It Anyway? numbers, though it dazzles when it toys with the conventions of Broadway's current musical vocabulary. In "What Is It Like When Ya Get The Plague?" for example, a plague-induced cough soon syncopates itself into an homage to Chicago's "Cell-Block Tango."
Dan Fields's direction ably manages the chaos, but to earn the audience's investment in these characters, he'll need to allow for some real interaction amidst the caricatures. The costumes and sets (by Hannah Rose Peck and Scott Orlesky respectively) are fun, especially Fuzzy Duck T-shirts that are indeed fuzzy and an upright bed allowing us to peep as Mommy tucks a lustful Oedipus into bed. Michael K. Berelson's lights clearly delineate the onstage and offstage spaces, but sadly, the uncredited soundboard operator has not yet seemed to master the show, as I often found myself straining to hear the miked voices.
With timing that can sometimes be hit-or-miss and voices that aren't quite show-stopping, the energetic ensemble (Gavin Lewis, Laura Jordan, and Reed Prescott) is nevertheless infinitely likable, playing every character in Oedipus's journey, from brother Tedipus to a sniffly Sphinx. In the tradition of Ashton Kucher at his best, Prescott is so charmingly committed to the depths of Reed's stupidity that he radiates the production's only real warmth.
While Oedipus for Kids is mischievous and crowd-pleasing, I was disappointed that its satire rarely cut more than skin-deep; I revel in a good groan, but I found myself groaning much more from the bad puns than from any of the audacious irreverence promised but seldom delivered.