Monday, July 25, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 332, A Review: "Hysterical!" (Thrown Stone)

 By James V. Ruocco

of, relating to, or marked by hysteria.
feeling or showing extreme and unrestrained emotion.
(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

All of us, at one point in our lives, exhibit hysterical behavior.
Some, in fact, more than others.
At Thrown Stone, playwright Elenna Stauffer tackles that issue, and others, in her mind-blowing 2016 comedy "Hysterical!," a cheery, flavorful, angst-ridden portrait of teen life that goes full tilt (or topsy turvy, if you prefer) once five members of the high school cheerleading squad, aptly named "Bandits," find their otherwise normal lives interrupted by a strange, mysterious, unexplained illness that sidelines  their victory-planned year, their scholastic endeavors, their personal lives, their social life and their big-time collegiate preparations following graduation.

The girls:

Of the five, three of the teenagers (maybe more, we are led to believe) begin to display odd, unidentifiable, strange behavior - a quirky, but entirely justified plot twist - that sets "Hysterical!" in motion.

Who's got it?
Who will get it?
Is it contagious?
Is there a cure?
Will it go away?
Or is this hysterical condition going to be a part of their lives forever?

Spoiler alert:
Answers to any of these questions would interrupt or destroy the interplay, the reality and the eventual outcome of "Hysterical!" and its potential enjoyment, its observations, its confrontations and it frequent bouts of absolute, well-positioned bouts of hysteria.

So get ready to dive in.

Thrown Stone's "Hysterical!" is delectable, judiciously employed fun that catches its audience by surprise, offset by choice moments of detailed charm, craziness, power plays, teen rivalry, girlish conversations, youthful innocence and zippy authority and voice.

It is witty and engaging.
Its quality never wavers.
It's a significant achievement in modern theatre.
It prompts immediate attention.
It kicks surprise and wonderment into high gear.
It works brilliantly on every level.

As playwright, Elenna Stauffer imbues "Hysterical!" with qualified dialogue, conversations, characters, motives, story arcs and marvelous stand-alone quotes that enhance the play's enjoyment, its progression and its keenly observed teen trappings, nuances, social norms and juicy envelope of opinion, discussion and investigation. Here, things are carefully timed and positioned with scenes, advancements in time, aesthetic and intention effectively connected in shades, tones, moods and colors designed to mirror the vibe, the feeling, the thoughts and the behavior of the five central characters.

The action of "Hysterical!" is shaped, linked and bandied about with shipbuilding confidence, tat and demand by Tracey Brigden who also staged Thrown Stone's emotionally involved production of Gracie Gardner's "Athena" at the intimate indoor venue. With script in hand, she once again confirms her keen eye and ear for theatrical repertoire, its set-piece monologues, its stage footing and its rehearsed, but natural, reflective live performance interplay. There's also a natural, inviting charm and flurry to her work which here, in "Hysterical!" brings additional potency, craft and gut-punch-thrill to the proceedings.

Given the "spoiler alert" context of the plotline and the unexplained illness that takes hold of certain characters (no names, please), Brigden is also faced with the "how to" mechanics of showcasing each affliction without resorting to camp, overkill or brutish, out-of-sync melodrama. Instead, she provides real, inspired, well-orchestrated bits of comedy, movement, blocking, expressions and vocal attacks that not only serve the material well, but prompt the right giggly response from the audience without any form of insult, injury or prejudice toward the afflicted characters.
Each character has her own individual, idiosyncratic blueprint or tick, which Brigden fuels with impeccable timing, delivery, spontaneity and expression. This in-and-out of quirk vs. normalcy technique is timed to the millisecond by the director, a requirement that must be conveyed with the right rhythm, beat, pause and tick, interspersed with exact line delivery and phrasing in order for it to take shape whenever the script deems it necessary. It's all magnificently handled, shaped and nurtured under Brigden's deft, precise tutelage.

"Hysterical!" stars Julia Crowley as Charlotte,  Kendyl Grace Davis as Madison, Isa Muino as Mia, Olivia Billings as Shannon and Shannon Barnes as Maddie. Projecting the different personalities, ticks, frustrations, angst, charm and background of their decidedly different characters, all five performers deliver exciting, honest, driven, observant performances individually or as a hard-working ensemble. Comic timing is key here as is the ability to master the in-and-out frenzy and confusion that springs out of nowhere whenever the script dictates the affliction of a certain character (or more than one) to interrupt the pending action as things spiral completely out of control. It's all divinely wobbly, silly and wildly caricatured, matched by ceaseless physical energy, line delivery and minutely detailed expressions and exaggerated body language.

Crowley (also appearing in the final moments of "Athena") brings fresh, lively, side-splitting sacrosanct and embracement to the pivotal role of Charlotte. As Madison, Davis gallops happily along (and not so happily depending on the scene) with trailblazing recreation, joy, teen spirit and a strong sense of natural, evolving camaraderie. Muino, in the role of Mia, bowls the audience over into genuine fits of laughter and slap happy dash and drive with a characterization of farcical cleverness, knowledge, hoot and split-second timing and line delivery.
Barnes, who commands the stage from start to finish as the title character of "Athena," crafts another noteworthy, polished performance in "Hysterical!" using instinct, occupation, enthusiasm and perfectly poised specificity and rhythm for her colorful portrayal of Maddie.  Billings, an actress who also shares the stage with Barnes in "Athena," crafts a comical, gloriously funny performance (she plays Shannon), multi-layered with excavation, plight, pause, surprise and remarkable, knock-about consistency.

A fresh, confident, urgent comedy sprinkled with playful doses of wit, amusement and amped eccentricity, "Hysterical!" is pure summer fizz, comically choreographed by director Tracey Brigden with a feast of ideas, points, swings, dips and flourishes that support and embellish Stauffer's already proven script. The well-chosen cast of five bring authority, voice and presence to their respective roles, sweetened by a strong sense of commitment, exhilaration and obvious love of live performance.
"Hysterical!" is performed in repertory with the fabulously entertaining "Athena," the latter, written by playwright Gracie Gardner.
Two great plays. Five exceptional actresses. Two equally talented playwrights. One significant director.
Thrown Stone is the place to be this summer.

Photos of "Hysterical!" courtesy of Chuck Jennes Photography 

"Hysterical" is being staged at Thrown Stone (Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance, 440 Main Street, Ridgefield, CT), now through August 6, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 442-1714.
website: thrownstone: org.

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