Sunday, March 08, 2009

Review - Beautiful Stories For Ugly Children - Workhouse & Hardcover Theaters - 4-1/2 stars

It’s nice to know theater can still surprise me.

Workhouse Theatre & Hardcover Theater teamed up to adapt Dave Louapre & Dan Sweetman’s “Beautiful Stories For Ugly Children” (BSFUC) for the stage and the results are quite delightful - and often unexpected. A share of that delight certainly stems from the source material itself, a series of illustrated stories for an adult audience that grabbed the attention of the comic book/graphic novel crowd, even though BSFUC was neither. Just as the product itself defies easy genre labels, the stage adaptations defy expectation.

In “Beneath The Useless Universe,” adapted and directed by Paul Von Stoetzel, Death (Madison Olimb) comes to visit a woman (Corey de Danann) who is tired of life and ready to shuffle off her mortal coil. But Death just wants to hang out. And stays for days. I thought I knew where this was going. I was wrong.

The centerpiece of the evening is “I Am Paul’s Dog,” adapted by Jeff Redman and directed by Christopher McGahan. Buster the Dog (Redman) guides the audience through a stretch of days with his master Paul (Steven Bucko). Buster gamely tries to untangle the mysteries of Paul’s mating habits, and foreign human concepts such as television, alarm clocks, weekends, and beer, among other things. The uniquely dog’s eye view of the narrative is full of twists and turns. Bucko does quadruple duty, also taking on the role of Buster’s canine best friend and Paul’s beer buddies, as well as one of Paul’s girlfriends. I thought I knew where this was going. I was wrong.

In “By The Light of the Screaming Moon,” adapted and directed by Nathaniel Churchill, a community of lemmings prepares for the big jump. But first, these rodents living a suburbanite existence have one last school prom to enjoy. Mary (Olimb again) and her date Jack (Bucko again) ditch their fellow prom-goers and Mary’s parents (de Danann and Redman again) to see if they can escape the deadly communal plunge. I thought I knew where this was going. I was wrong.

I haven’t had such a good time being confounded by a theater production in a long time.

Each story is full of laughs both large and small, as well as sudden moments of bittersweet longing and grace. One diatribe by Death almost had me tuning out the “Useless Universe” but it turns out that wasn’t the “moral of the story” after all. The story’s true end point is one of the nicer gifts to lonely single people that I’ve heard in a very long time. Despite that one brief hiccup, the adaptations all seem to capture the same whimsical spirit. There’s a hint of forgiveness lurking behind every bite of satire. It all makes me want to go out and try to find some of these hard to find old stories for my own bookshelf (they’ve been out of print since 1992, but they still keep popping up here and there).

The set and costume design (by Sarah J. Leigh and Sara Wilcox, respectively) wisely don’t try to mimic exactly the spectacular line drawings by Dan Sweetman in the original stories. Production Artist Travis Olson does offer a nod to the source material in recreations of the screaming moon, Buster, Death, and a group gathered on a cliff’s edge all painted on a proscenium arch at the front of the stage. It also seems to act as a book spine, with the BSFUC title running down one side. It’s a clean, clever nod from the design team to their inspiration that never gets in the way of the storytelling, but serves a reminder before and after the stories have made their way across the stage. Special mention should be made of Death’s faceless costume - it’s familiar and unsettling, which makes the comedy that follows from that character even funnier.

My only quarrel with the staging is an issue of transitions. “Paul’s Dog” was the biggest offender. There were periods during the piece where it seemed like we were getting a blackout every thirty seconds. Buster has an insight into human nature and a dog’s life, blackout, Buster shares another insight, blackout, Buster says something else, blackout. Enough already. In addition to killing whatever momentum the story was trying to build, the blackouts were completely unnecessary. Just like the incessant shuffling around of furniture the blackouts were trying to “hide” were completely unnecessary. Later in the proceedings, the actors showed they were obviously capable of handling an emotional, character or time transition, sometimes all three, without the benefit of light changes. One can enter carrying a trash can or push a bench around without destroying suspension of disbelief. Better yet, try doing the story without so much furniture moving. The audience is on your side. They’re not stupid. They’ve seen things acted out in front of them before. They’ll roll with it. Trust your story, your audience and your actors and just let the thing flow. “Useless Universe’s” big fish bowl transition was its only slip in this regard. But again, either actor in character, in either combination, could have helped make the switch in full light, gotten you another belly laugh, and not given the audience a chance to withdraw from the story. Please, I beg of you, spare us the time in the dark. It’s not helping.

In sum, though, the evening is great fun. “Beautiful Stories For Ugly Children” lives up to the rabid devotion lavished on its source material. I’ve never held an issue of BSFUC in my hands, but I now consider myself a fan. I was already a fan of Workhouse and Hardcover, but they’ve moved up yet another notch on my list of companies to carve out time for, whenever and wherever they turn up next. But for now, go see this show and revel in some unique storytelling, very well played.

Very Highly Recommended.

Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children” performs at Workhouse Theater’s home, The Warren, 4400 Osseo Road in Minneapolis, now through March 21st, 2009. Evening performances at 7:30pm, matinees at 2pm. Tickets are $12 ($10 seniors & students) at the door, but only $10 in advance ($8 seniors & students) - so call 612-386-5763 or reserve tickets online at You can also check out a preview article I wrote, with other handy BSFUC links, at

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