The Songs of Robert
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 20, 2009
If Robert were
A dog, he'd purr
That's just one small, delightful example of the extraordinary poetry that floods The Songs of Robert, a gorgeous solo show written and performed by John Crutchfield that I am so happy to have seen at this year's FringeNYC Festival. Told in song, poetry, and monologue—all brimming with remarkable language that evokes breathtaking image after breathtaking image—this one-man play is the story of a young man on the brink of everything, filled with the ineffable longing of first love and the lonesomeness that comes from not fitting in at all and not being properly understood. Robert is a senior in high school in a small town in Southern Appalachia; it's the mid-1980s, in the final spring before his graduation. The events of The Songs of Robert mostly revolve around how he has not yet asked the dark-haired girl he is infatuated with to go to the prom with him. But the places that this remarkable play takes us are boundless and deep.
The story is told by a dozen different characters, each of whom Crutchfield inhabits with vivid compassion and heart. Young Robert—looking forward to leaving his North Carolina home for art school at a New England university—is one of these voices; others include his father, who loves and tries to comprehend the son whose interests are so different from his own; his high school English teacher, Mrs. Anderson, who leads a thrilling discussion of The Catcher in the Rye that resonates with Robert's own circumstance; his little sister Jennie, a cheerleader; and his guidance counselor. I think my favorite among the characters is Coach Sloe, Robert's high school coach—a P.E. teacher with a poet's soul. (I also enjoyed meeting Lurlene, the school bus driver—once encountered she's not easily forgotten, believe me.)
Two of the characters are from beyond the realm of family and school. Juan-Jorge Jesus is Robert's inexplicably Hispanic guardian angel (not in Robert's fantasy, apparently, but an actual guardian angel—I love that the world of the play encompasses this). And Ol' Preacha' is described in the program as "a wandering bluesman of uncertain age and origin," a minstrel who puts his hat out for tips at the top of the show and intermittently returns to sing most of the songs in The Songs of Robert, heart-tugging blues that reflect the anxious and questing spirit of our young hero even as the things they tell about are miles and years beyond anything he's experienced thus far.
Juan-Jorge and Ol' Preacha' are the wisest characters in this wise show; everyone in it is big-hearted and humane, though, and all delightfully transcend archetypes, because Crutchfield's acting and writing make them achingly real. The words soar in almost every moment, reflecting Robert's desires; and the music—Ol' Preacha's blues on a steel-body resonator guitar and Pap's folk songs on a banjo—are soulful and touching. The play moves around its various narrators in a more-or-less chronological fashion until an end comes that I certainly wasn't expecting, one that's perfect in its inevitability and simplicity.
The staging, by Steve Samuels, is elegant and spare, utilizing a pair of chairs and a shopping cart (Ol' Preacha's) containing the few props and costume accessories that Crutchfield needs to transform himself into the various inhabitants of the story.
The Songs of Robert is the beautiful glistening gem that I always know I'll find but don't always know where to look for in this year's FringeNYC. It's only here for a couple more days, so get it on your list of must-see shows right away.