Middletown Review by Freeline Media

By Paul Castaneda

ORLANDO — In a theatrical world seemingly dominated nationally by musicals and celebrity stunt casting of straight plays and regionally by either more of the same or well known titles meant to ensure “butts in seats,” it becomes increasingly difficult to find something nuanced, something truly human, something …real.  Luckily for Orlando audiences, Kangagirl Productions has gifted us with an absolutely gorgeous production of Will Eno’s MIDDLETOWN.

What Is Will Eno’s Style of Playwriting?

If you are unfamiliar with Eno’s work, this would be a beautiful (if at times emotionally overwhelming) introduction. Eno is an American playwright known for his darkly comedic and absurdist works. His characters often struggle to communicate with each other and speak in short, fragmented sentences, making dialogue seem sparse.  A sense of disconnection and unease are common in his works.

Additionally, he often plays with the conventions of theater, breaking the fourth wall and incorporating meta-theatrical elements.  Often, to perhaps lighten the dark thematic themes, Enos peppers his shows with moments of humor and wit. He uses comedy to subvert audience expectations and add depth to his characters even as he takes us down a road of exploration of topics such as loneliness, mortality, and the search for meaning in life.

What is the Story of Middletown?

In MIDDLETOWN, we encounter a meditation on the ordinary lives of the residents of a small American town. The work journeys into the existential angst and sense of isolation that many of the citizens of the aforementioned town experience. They are caught in a cycle of mundane routines and lack of meaningful interactions,as well as questions of life and death, love and loss, and the search for meaning and connection.

In the hands of lesser artists, this work might become maudlin, halting or even boring.  That is certainly not the case here.  This staging is in the incredibly capable hands of David Lee, who’s familiarity with Enos (he starred in a terrific staging of Thom Pain, Based On Nothing, a few years ago at the Orlando Fringe Festival) which shows in the wonderful care he takes in not only presenting the world as it exists in Middletown, but the lives being lived within its boundaries.  Lee does himself a great favor in having cast some of the best actors working in this town, all of whom seem to tap into emotional depths rarely found in such quantity locally.

Just about every character (and actor) gets a moment to shine in this production, even if shining might seem an odd characterization for moments that can be so wrenching at times, when they are not reeling us into this world with their earnestness or the mirror they hold to that which is most human in all of us.  The writing, direction and acting marry in a way that presents a true gift of theatrical beauty that is amongst the best I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

What Stands Out About This Production?

Although I could literally single out just about every performance, some really do stand out: Joe Swanberg and Anitra Pritchard-Bryant spend much of Act One injecting much needed comedy into the show as Cop and Librarian before sharing an incredibly touching scene in Act Two centered around the loss of a loved one. 

Daniel Cooksley as Mechanic, the closest thing to a narrator or guide in the show, balances humor, a heartbreaking descent into addiction and insights that come blindingly out of nowhere while also breaking the fourth wall to include and at times instruct the audience in a performance that would overwhelm a lesser artist, but is handled here with dignity and aplomb. His response in his scene with Female Doctor when asked what he wants from life just about broke me (“I want to know Love. I calmly want to know love on Earth. And to feel beautiful”), a plea from a lost soul like many we know to a world trained to dismiss him and those like him as nothing more than human flotsam. 

Megan Borkes glides with ease between comedy and drama in several ensemble roles before delivering an achingly beautiful goodbye to a departed citizen (“That was nice about the flowers”).

But the very center of the show is the unexpected blossoming of a relationship between John Dodge (Michael Marinaccio), a handyman struggling with mortality and the passage of time, and Mrs. Swanson (Felichia Chivaughn), a new arrival in town who is always referencing a never appearing husband.  Marinaccio and Chivaughn are incredibly natural, real and unencumbered by the pretentiousness or representational pitfalls we often see in the depiction of characters that meet and then deepen their connection throughout a story.  One feels so deeply for both of these characters and, without revealing too much, are left emotionally changed by the end of the show by both of them.

While Marinaccio is well known to Orlando audiences from years of local productions, Chivaughn is a revelation, delivering a grounded performance that, to me, was a masterclass in representing the other arriving in an existent circumstance.  Her curiosity, openness, confusion, empathy and vulnerability are stunning in their simplicity and there is not one false step in her performance. One can only hope that she will continue to grace us with her presence on stage going forward.

The set design (Lee), lighting design (Amy Hadley) and costuming (Kyla Swanberg) all serve to three dimensionalize the world of Middletown and the citizens therein.  Each, in their way, delivers layers that help to fully realize the story being presented and allow the audience to immerse themselves in the experience without having to overwhelm us with the choices made.  The same can be said for the elegant original musical compositions by Matt Lynx, which help carry the energy being shared from one moment to the next.

If you see one show in Orlando this year, I suggest you make it this one.  It will remind you of what theater, at its best, can be and of how we, as audience members, can be moved and changed by the experience.

Where Can I See Middletown?

 Middletown is being performed through Sunday, March 5 at Fringe ArtSpace, 54 W. Church St., Suite 201, in downtown Orlando. To purchase tickets, log on to https://orlandofringe.org/artspace/

Paul Castaneda is an Orlando actor, stage director, playwright and sales professional, and the co-founder of the Greater Orlando Actors Theatre (GOAT).

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