The Granduncle Quadrilogy
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 5, 2008
The Granduncle Quadrilogy, this year's holiday offering at the Brick Theater, is sort of like A Charlie Brown Christmas, but without Linus. By which I mean that it's a funny show, and also a melancholy one; wildly imaginative and engaging to the senses more than the intellect. As the title suggests, it's a compendium of four short plays about a sad sack hero named Granduncle who lives in a bleak icy made-up world whose main purpose seems to be to trip him up at every turn, as if playing some colossal cosmic joke on him. I wished for some leavening to remind us of the more humane aspects of the holiday season, but I was constantly impressed by the creativity and talent of the folks who created this unusual show.
Those folks include Jeffrey Lewonczyk, the playwright, who has pulled out all the stops in imagining an alternative universe in which to set his story that is at once weird and off-kilter and incisively familiar. Also Hope Cartelli, the director, who with a crackerjack design team has realized Lewonczyk's imaginary world in vivid and robust detail; kudos particularly to Julianne Kroboth, whose costumes are funny and evocative and startlingly varied considering the fact that there are not that many characters and only two basic locales.
Six actors comprise the cast, led by Richard Harrington in the title role, and featuring Brick stalwarts Fred Backus, Ivanna Cullinan, Jessi Gotta, Gavin Starr Kendall, and Melissa Roth, each of whom has at least one outstanding moment to shine (they also function brilliantly and cooperatively as the tightest of ensembles). Cullinan has a particularly funny moment as "Class Mother," a schoolteacher (who reminded me, for no clear reason, of the headmistress in the musical Spring Awakening), when she carries a walrus carcass off stage. Backus is hilarious as a silent, and apparently quite dim, native of a country that is the enemy of Granduncle's nation's enemy.
Each of the four plays is introduced by an audio segment that sets the stage for the story to follow. Granduncle is a shockingly long-lived fellow in a country that is so brutal and cold that the norm is to die young (and the local religion, based on the worship of a child who was pushed beneath an ice floe to drown, fetishizes death rather than life). He relates stories from his earlier days to mostly unwilling listeners (kids, townspeople, etc., all portrayed on audio by Brick all-stars including Maggie Cino, Danny Bowes, Iracel Rivero, and assistant director Roger Nasser). Despite the pre-recorded protests, the stories are brought to life on stage in succession: a tale about Kisselsrite (a Christmas-like holiday), one depicting the strange mating rituals enacted during "the feast of the thaw," one about the building of an ice wall, and the final segment, in which Granduncle leaves his native land and encounters a strange, warm, colorful place.
The outcome in every case is that Granduncle gets his hopes up only to have them bitterly dashed: to continue my Charlie Brown analogy from the beginning, he is sure he's going to kick that football, but there's always a Lucy nearby ready to pull it out from under him and send him flying onto his increasingly battered keister. But each of the tales' various thematic ideas give free rein to Lewonczyk's imagination, and the fun derives from seeing how he'll use exotic ingredients like an albatross egg or a mammoth trunk in contexts you just don't see coming. When he gets to create from whole cloth a second new world—in the last piece, when Granduncle's wanderings take him to a land so warm and fertile that you can pick and choose which birds you will eat—Lewonczyk goes into overdrive.
Indeed, if any criticism can be leveled against The Granduncle Quadrilogy, it is that there's too much of it: except for the first, very tight and pointed story, all of these adventures last longer than they probably should. And, as I mentioned at the top of this review, a bit of unabashed sentimentality might make this show feel more holiday-like than it does. But for those in search of eclectic theatre experiences this Christmas season, The Granduncle Quadrilogy may well fit the bill.