Preparing for a Visit from BOB

theatreOf all of the technology spawned by and for the theater, from computer-driven lighting instruments and sound cue software to glow tape and thundersheets, none has proved as useful and ubiquitous as the coat rack. For the solo performer, in particular, the coatrack serves as wardrobe department, scenery and home base. A trip to the coat rack lets us know that something is about to change, a new beat is coming and we’re cued to focus in on a new character or place in time. With the addition of a new hat or the leaving of a scarf, we’re allowing the conceit that a single actor is now someone else.

This timeless and simple element of stagecraft is one of the core strengths employed by Anne Pasquale in her one-woman show, BOB: Blessed Be the Dysfunction that Binds. The unwieldy title betrays a production that, while straightforward in scope, sometimes gets bogged down in overcomplicated production elements that unnecessarily distract from a performance that is best when kept simple. The show, written and performed by Pasquale, is a first-person narrative of her experiences growing up north of Providence and dealing with a family life riddled with mental illness, disability and the unfortunate general communication issues we’re all too familiar with. It’s a gripping tale and one that we’re sure Pasquale must have been urged to bring to life many times. As a screenplay, the plot would read like an after-school special: lower middle class, Italian suburban family makes their way through the 1960s and ‘70s with a potentially violent special needs son, a daughter with clinical depression, distant, yet quirky, parents with one foot in the Old Country, a youngest child getting tossed about in the melee and the one almost sane daughter who tries to hold it all together. However, since this is a true story, it seems harsh to consider the plot hackneyed or overly familiar. As a one-woman, live theatrical piece, however, Pasquale gives us not only her wonderfully filtered view of her unique history, but her emotional interpretation of the events that she was forced to deal with.

Pasquale involves the audience directly, if not always effectively, and we’re slowly drawn into the story of she and her siblings, particularly the ever-challenging title character, who is expected to visit any minute. As she cleans up and prepares the space for a visit from Bob, she inhabits each of the family members and peripheral characters central to the often heart-wrenching storyline. Her portrayals of Bob himself are sensibly kept to a minimum of very effective and specific traits (a lunging forward while biting one hand is the signature move), but some of the more disturbing moments in her history are relegated to shadowplay behind a translucent screen with added sound effects that, while appropriately emotional, tend to come across as gimmicky or an attempt by director Mary Ann Hay to artificially inflate the dramatic effect of moments that could stand alone more effectively if Pasquale simply told the story.

It’s understandable that there would be a temptation to add production elements to this performance. Besides the aforementioned screen and copious sound effects, there are projections and several costume pieces all meant to help Pasquale relate this tortured, but ultimately triumphant life history. However, the moments that work best are when she roots herself and simply talks to us. She readily becomes all of the people she tells us about (her strongest recollections of character are her own parents, in characterizations that are a joy to witness) and the story drives itself very well without the added distractions of technical elements that are interesting ideas, but sometimes fall flat or seem forced. Director Hay would have best served Pasquale by giving her a blank space, one coat rack and our imaginations.

BOB… is a compelling piece and deserves an audience. One hopes that as this show moves on to different audiences and spaces, Pasquale and Hay will trust themselves and their talents to strip away the unnecessary distractions and trust us to follow along.

BOB: Blessed Be the Dysfunction That Binds, plays through June 30, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7 pm and Sundays at 2 pm at the Artists’ Exchange, 50 Rolfe Square, Cranston, RI 02910.

 

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