Matthew Reddin

Youngblood’s “Cartoon” reigns supreme

This tale of a totalitarian toontown forces reflection on an increasingly violent society, and features an exceptional cast and crew.

By - Dec 1st, 2012 12:09 pm

Youngblood Theatre’s latest, Cartoon, may have a fragmented, chaotic storyline, but there’s nothing broken about this tale (or tragedy) of ‘toons fighting against a totalitarian system.

Artistic director Michael Cotey is the play’s puppet master, and he’s got a nice collection of characters in his sandbox. Playwright Steve Yockey gave him Saturday-morning cartoon archetypes under the thumb of their ruler, Esther. In that role, Lindsey L. Gagliano would give Dakota Fanning a run for her money in the creepy little girl department – if she didn’t keep cheekily flaunting her breasts at the audience. (This play may be about cartoons, but it’s decidedly not for children.)

The action begins after a string of manic theme songs introduces the cast, when Trouble (Jason Waszak) steals the comically large hammer Esther uses to maintain her power. Change is the name of the game, he says, but change is a double-edged sword. Waszak’s shift from wide-eyed, overalls-wearing innocent to driven, idealistic revolutionary – with the blind zeal that comes with such a role – is done with great skill.

Trouble (Jason Waszak) name-appropriately instigates the play’s conflict by stealing Esther’s “Small Hammer,” the source of her authority.

Waszak’s displays a necessary talent for physical theater, although his is mostly limited to clowning around with the heavy hammer. Others face similar or greater challenges: David Franz, as the mute Suitor, is a surprisingly wonderful mime. Jordan Gwiazdowski, as Howdy Doody-esque Winston Puppet, delivers what could be the best performance of the night. He’s bound with a marionette’s strings, and Gwiazdowski makes every swing of the arm or lift of the leg convincing.

The little things make Cartoon great. Sydney Mei Ruf-Wong and Alexandra Bonesho, as anime girls Akane and Yumi, could get by on their barely long enough sailor suits alone. But their way with anime gestures and inflections do more than the short skirts. The Suitor’s love, Damsel (Jessie Mae Scibek), moves with a grace that suggests vacuity but a purpose that suggests much more. The almost-unrecognizable Andrew Edwin Voss is a Rockstar in more than name early in the play, as the teddy bear celebrity struts about the stage, caressing and grinding on female patrons in the front row. (Consider yourself warned/invited, depending on your preference). But when he stops roaring long enough to talk, the soft, mousy voice underneath reminds us not to judge people at first glance, even before he says the same.

Yumi (Alexandra Bonesho), one of the two anime girls, lets herself get swept up in the play’s not-cartoon-anymore violence.

That’s just one of the many messages packed into Cartoon; one of my few complaints about the show is it seems to try to do too much at times. While fear and violence were the primary subject matter, those themes splintered into sub-themes frequently and abruptly. Then again, given the play’s visceral edge, the quick themes can work; brushing across each for a few moments gives food for thought without smothering.

The visceral edge sharpened as the play developed and the characters descended into a maelstrom of violence. It never got beyond the level of your average Looney Tunes short, but think about how brutal cartoon violence would be in real life. One character unexpectedly pulls a gun halfway through the show and embarks on a mindless rampage, and Ruf-Wong and Bonesho end up in a catfight that turns deadly and savage fast. Perhaps more indicative of how humor and violence have been intertwined than anything on stage is this: as their struggle wound down as one strangled the other, some people kept laughing even as my stomach filled with dread.

That’s no indictment of them, and neither is Cartoon. It holds up a funhouse mirror to suggest a Wonderland version of what we’ve created in our own world. But maybe the mirror isn’t as distorted as we like to think it is.

The brutal “Cartoon” frequently uses illustrations, like this image of Esther’s (Lindsey Gagliano) predecessor, the wicked Cynthia, to add to the flavor of its Toontown world. All photos by Ross Zentner.

The success of Cartoon owes a lot to the off-stage crew, particularly costume designer Eleanor Cotey, technical director/scenic designer Eric Schallhorn, and animator Tommy Simms, who drew a plethora of illustrations projected throughout the show.

Youngblood Theatre’s Cartoon runs through December 15 at the Milwaukee Fortress, 100 E. Pleasant St. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online or at the door.

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