by Collin McConnell · February 17, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #50 Collin McConnell looks at Branched now playing at HERE
I really wanted this play to be about a mutant baby.
...I really wanted this play to be about a mutant baby.
But this is definitely not a play about a mutant baby. At least not in the conventional sense (if that might even be conceivable). The play is definitely loaded with absurdity and monsters, and certainly traffics in disruptions and dysfunctions, but really, the mutant baby, by the end of the play, is not anywhere near the most pressing of issues.
So, if a play billed as one about a family that "gives birth to a not-quite human baby" that causes their lives to "veer in new directions" (and is helmed by Robert Ross Parker of Vampire Cowboys) is not about the mutant baby, what is it about?
...but that's a bit heady for this play, so let me step back a moment.
Uptight Tamara rules her family: her husband Martin is wound up in her Paleo diet, over-analytical sex life, and hollow (though oddly haunting) family rituals, and their child is pinned under their super-aggressive parenting. But suddenly, baby-on-the-way-Beatrice isn't quite so baby when she pops out, and soon Martin begins bursting out of the discipline Tamara has been doling out, and their five-year-old son Ben can do nothing but react - and his poor repressed kindergarten teacher Belinda oddly gets swept up in it all.
The best part? It's funny.
This play is hilarious, hitting exactly the right note, right off the bat. First, Erin Mallon's script is sharp, witty, and wildly unapologetic, loaded with reasons to laugh at the unfortunate people who populate her play. Robert Ross Parker deftly directs the piece, with no space or moment wasted, with nothing shied away from, and yet nothing grossly overdone - Mallon and Parker toss us into the ridiculousness of this world from the very first moment, leaving us uncomfortably knowing that anything might be possible... and yet the play never steps off into the world of unnecessary (a wonderful treat in a world in which I was happy to give over and laugh). And the cast is excellent - Tara Westwood, Andrew Blair, Michelle David, and Marguerite Stimpson are all wonderfully engaging, and incredibly committed to their characters even (and especially) in the most bizarre of moments (though David as Ben and Stimpson as Belinda certainly get the best of the awkward); the actors do beautiful work individually, and work wonderfully as an ensemble.
The design elements are also deserving of kudos: the set is simple, designed seemingly with the purpose of being manipulated by the actors and to stay out of the way otherwise, an excellent choice by Nick Francone - this play could easily be overwhelmed by any singular element, and the set remains open, fluid for the whirlwind of catastrophe to flow on through, almost as though it means to say to the characters, 'everything here is apparent, and you cannot hide.' The lighting (also by Francone) gently aids the simplicity of the set, though occasionally casting an odd color to help remove the play even more from our sense of "reality." Kristina Makowski's costumes are similarly simple (and beautifully so in their 'functionality' for the purposes of the plot): the contrast between the Jenkins-Laurence family and Belinda Cartwright is easily noticeable, though not overdone, and only becomes more and more apparent as the play goes on.
But for all the praise I am happy to deservingly toss out about Branched, I do need to address something that troubled me (though maybe not in a bad way):
The play is appropriately subtitled: ...A Comedy with Consequences. Because through all the hilarity, this play has a pretty serious message, and hits it home pretty hard right at the end. But if there is some serious severity to the play, why is it funny?
Because the people in this play are caricatures of many dysfunctional people we run into every day (or even have within our daily lives).
We know these people. And (perhaps I'm only speaking for myself here, but:) we pass these people off. We think the "fad diet" the mother is on (and is imposing on her son) is ridiculous, but we don't do anything to help or explain why it might be damaging (or vice versa, with the same outcome - or worse, because we push an agenda too aggressively and turn others off to what we have to say - in Tamara's words, we don't have any friends, and we're fine with that). Or we think the confused husband is simply that - confused, and we think he got himself into his own mess and we don't talk to him, we don't try to help. Or if we do, by helping, we turn into the other, sexually repressed woman, and instead of helping, we turn the man into an object to help satisfy our own starvation.
And then we get the boy. The child.
"I LEARNED IT FROM WATCHING YOU!"
he yells in a terrifying moment of acting out. It is the most truth the play - or anyone - could possibly yell at us.
And then it all comes to halt.
...I wondered, when the play ended, if the ending wasn't too sudden, too out of place... too real. And then I came back to the subtitle: ...with Consequences. I had been laughing all night, pained by the awkwardness of every character, enjoying laughing at these people. And then I was upset by the ending, and maybe it was because I didn't get to see the characters deal with the reality that had struck them all so suddenly. But twenty minutes out, walking down the street away from the theater, talking about the play, I realized: I was now dealing with the consequences. I was put-off because I had been having such a good time, and suddenly I wasn't allowed to have a good time any more.
What's one to do with this?
Go. Laugh. And don't be afraid to be upset by the consequences.