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Gork!: The Retard Always Wins!

Theatre Review by Warren Hoffman

No, Gork!:The Retard Always Wins!, the funny and moving play with an exclamation point, is neither a musical nor a combination of the words "geek" and "dork." The title is actually one of the many names, some affectionate, others not, including "retard" and "peckerhead," which are used to refer to Adam Terrill, the autistic and mentally disabled brother of Autumn Terrill, the writer and performer of Gork!. Hollywood movies which often tend to romanticize the lives of mentally disabled individuals such as I Am Sam and Rain Man aside, Autumn Terrill, through the use of video clips and anecdotes, reveals the unique, complex, funny, and frustrating person that is her brother Adam.

Unlike the "soft lens" used by McDonalds in their commercials for the Special Olympics, which Terrill complains smoothes over the nuances and individual personality traits of the mentally disabled community, Terrill's play shows warts and all. Adam is a loud, overweight redhead with a passion for the rock band Kiss, a love of pop songs, and a habit of calling into talk-radio shows to discuss just about anything that comes into his overly stimulated mind. But it's just not Adam who's a wild handful. Terrill's dysfunctional parents, despite their love for their five children, are bickering enemies who continually insult each other, despite having been married for thirty-plus years. Their fights only add to Adams's antics and become the source of much amusement, particularly when we learn that Mr. Terrill has nicknamed his wife "Cracky" in reference to her "posterior" and has the habit of pulling his wife's pants down in the kitchen while she does the dishes.

With such crazy, but true source material, Terrill's play often feels more like a circus than a family drama. Just take the scene in which Terrill finds herself trapped in a car on a family vacation to Mt. Rushmore when the car runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere in 107 degree heat. While the hyperactive Adam begins laughing at his parents, Terrill's mother loses control and suddenly demands a divorce from her seemingly incompetent husband, all while shepherding her precious children out of the overheated car. Terrill is a talented actress who distinctly and effortlessly switches between impersonating her various family members and even takes on the guises of her other brothers and sisters, making one think that there is actually a cast of seven on the stage with her.

Terrill's major triumph, though, is the way in which she impersonates her autistic brother Adam. Capturing his loud voice, his penchant for off-color expressions, and his love for marching band flag waving, Terrill reveals a multi-dimensional, often hysterically funny portrait of an autistic individual, a picture that the media, let alone theater, has been slow to depict. Terrill's take on Adam is never insulting or demeaning, but rather she shows him to be an imaginative, exciting young man who can be a handful at times. Indeed, Gork! attempts to give a platform to what is essentially a community without a voice, a fact that might seem surprising after we see how loud and vibrant a single autistic child can be.

Gork! is sharply directed by Dean Strober who finds a rhythm that balances Terrill's anecdotes and character impersonations alongside video clips of Adam (with video editing provided by Elissa Zazerra). Though at times these video clips make the show feel more like a documentary (as a matter of fact, Terrill and company are turning this material into a film project), the video helps round out the character of Adam and gives him a voice alongside his sister's stories and recreated scenes. Part of the play' s success is that it transcends a traditional narrative framework and is as much about Terrill herself and her attempt to understand brother as it is about Adam and his life.

Gork!, with its emphasis on autism, might not sound like the sort of play that would make for good entertainment, especially in a festival overrun by satiric musicals, but Terrill's play is a polished, enjoyable, and most significantly, important piece of theater that shows a portion of society that has too frequently been pushed to the margins.

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New York International Fringe Festival
Gork!
Through August 29
The Next Stage, 312 West 11th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4488