This Way That Way
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 16, 2005
This Way That Way is a delight. This latest piece from physical comedy theatre company Parallel Exit is completely wordless (save for a very few that are written on some cards that are displayed, vaudeville-style, on an easel). But it's filled with noise: much of it from the two onstage performers, who dance, whoop, holler, laugh, occasionally throw things, talk gibberish in silly voices, and play the ukulele and the harmonica; and the rest from the audience, who laugh a large proportion of the time and clap much of the rest. Ideal for kids of all ages (though I suspect it would work especially well with an uninhibited crowd of youngsters), it's an enormous amount of fun.
It tells the story of two fellows who become friends as they try to eke out a living during the Great Depression. We never learn their names: one is short and childlike, a hoofer who wants to dance on Broadway (his patched suitcase bears a label "New York or Bust"); the other is taller and more street-smart (though he still sleeps with a stuffed toy at night)—he's a con man always on the lookout for the next easy mark. The two team up in the middle of the American heartland, hop a train, and embark on a journey that takes them to the Big Apple in search of fame and fortune.
It's a wild ride, brimming with crazy adventures. In one town, they eat at a greasy spoon run by a surly gent named Al. When they discover that they have no money to pay the bill, they get assigned to wash dishes, leading to a dizzying display of juggling and plate spinning. In another hamlet, they set up shop playing Three Card Monte, demonstrating the sleight-of-hand of the con artist using enormous oversized cards. The little fellow helps the bigger guy over his anxieties about NYC, and the larger one lets the smaller one share in some of his slightly-ill-gotten funds (stored in an extravagantly colorful sock).
Once they hit New York, they put on a miniature vaudeville show—dancing, clowning, juggling, and so on—that looks impressive enough to land them in the Big Time. Will they get a job from the cigar-chomping manager that they're auditioning for? You'll have to see This Way That Way yourself to find out.
The entire show is performed by two extraordinary entertainers, Ryan Kasprzak (the short one) and Joel Jeske (the tall one). Kasprzak, whose loose-limbed dancing will charm you from the very top of the show, is like a cartoon character come to life. Three cartoon characters, to be precise: Bugs Bunny (whom he conjures when he appears, brazenly, in a long blonde wig, pretending to be a lady passenger on the train), Daffy Duck (whose impish, manic personality resembles his), and, at his most wildly energetic, the Tasmanian Devil. Jeske, whose versatility and grace put me in mind of Bill Irwin, operates more from the silent clown tradition—notably Harold Lloyd, whom he physically resembles (and his black-rimmed glasses accentuate the likeness), but also Chaplin at times and, when he looks wistfully off into the distance, Buster Keaton. Both Jeske and Kasprzak have seemingly endless repertoires of shtick, tricks, gags, and bits to draw from, which are showcased here generously by director Mark Lonergan.
Lonergan, Jeske, and Kasprzak share credit as creators of This Way That Way; fans of each will have no trouble identifying some of the signatures of each of these artists in this piece. A goal shared by all three, undoubtedly, is that the entertainment value should never be overshadowed by the art—and so, while it is dazzlingly artful, the show is fundamentally about making an audience feel wonder and joy.
Yet the achievement behind the work should not be minimized: what these guys have done, more or less, is to take two staple forms of early moviemaking—the Looney Tunes cartoon and the Mack Sennett silent short—and stretch them into an 80-minute narrative. This Way That Way is a play composed entirely of comic set pieces, told with no dialogue and only very minimal titles: we learn how the characters are feeling about their dishwashing assignment, for example, solely from their juggling. This is no small feat: to relate a compelling story using nothing but gags and shtick is a colossal accomplishment. Lonergan, Jeske, and Kasprzak are to be congratulated.
And also thanked, because, as I've already said, what they've mainly done is built a charmer of a show here. If every moment isn't blissful perfection, the entire enterprise is engaging and sweet and loaded with mirth. This Way That Way is a grand entertainment for the whole family this holiday season, and deserves to come back again and again in seasons to come.