John Lennon’s Gargoyle
John Lennon’s Gargoyle
Those first few minutes that, in your average play, are needed to engage an audience during its setup are spent differently in the world premiere of John Lennon's Gargoyle. Author Bryan Willis has dispensed with a standard introduction; instead, he and director Jerry Manning give the audience strong imagery, including a sleek white set and a potent tableau of a sideways bathtub filled with soil. The protagonist Frank, played by Craig Zagurski, provides a pithy intro with the wise instruction to "never make fun of dead people," and then Willis's script starts moving. So quickly does it start moving, that this black comedy never has a chance to really take off. The introduction is indicative of the rest of Theater Schmeater's production, which is marked by artful staging, quirky and sometimes lofty concepts, and a structure that supports neither.

Breezing through an introduction is not a bad idea; they're often a little tedious. But this story, Willis's contemporary interpretation of Candide, hinges on a few poor decisions that quickly unravel Frank's life. The rest of the play cannot seem to recover from the lack of context; we never sufficiently know what Frank's world was before the play started. Willis's concept of a man who is suddenly afflicted by a series of urban legends, including having his kidneys stolen by a seductress, is certainly great. Such a chain of events (if presented effectively) could make one wonder, as Frank (like Candide) does, if "everything happens for a reason." However, the events in Willis's piece are neither developed nor copious enough to really earn this profound question. The question is not new, so asking it well is vital. Willis's use of a psychiatric ward to explain the script's sometimes dreamlike world also dances around the large issues he proposes.

Despite some of these problems, Zagurski pulls off an engaging and dynamic performance as Frank. The relationship between Frank and his daughter Julia, played by Sarah Malkin, is the most memorable in the piece. Malkin gives a warm, glowing interpretation of one of Willis's best inspirations, a daughter who is inexplicably self-possessed, loving, and brilliant despite having a disturbed childhood. These more lively performances stand out against Aimee Bruneau's Lucy (the woman who steals Frank's kidneys), who could be a little more enigmatic.

Perhaps what is most effective about this piece is not character, but image. Jerry Manning uses the episodic text to create a series of memorable pictures. Manning and designer LB Morse use simple light to great effect, and consequently, your eyes are drawn to the stage. A series of recurring images, including John Lennon's gargoyle (whose shape and size often vary), combined with music often give the sense of performance art or an installation, though some of the pictures certainly have resonance in the text. The gargoyle, which Frank steals on the day he loses everything, physically represents the change in his life, and the bathtub filled with soil recalls Candide finding peace in his garden (Frank indeed makes reference to cultivating his own garden). The production also solves the usually awkward problem of a crying baby -- by having an adult cry for the doll on stage -- beautifully.

With such fertile possibilities in the script, it would be a shame if Willis did not develop it to its full potential. The piece does have some engaging moments, and when a comedic playwright wants to talk about meaning, the product can be the link between art and entertainment.