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Raised By Humans
Vortex Theatre

Raised by Humans
Charles Fisher and Diane Villegas
In her latest play, Raised By Humans, Albuquerque playwright Susan Erickson wrangles family dysfunction, afterlife angst, and talking bears to craft a warm, wacky and whimsical meditation on love and its surprises. Though an early version of Erickson's script was performed more than a decade ago, she recently returned to this genre-defying script, first developing it as part of the Playwrights' Circle of the Albuquerque Theatre Guild and now presenting it in a revised version at Albuquerque's historic Vortex Theatre, under the direction of Vortex founder David Richard Jones.

Raised By Humans tells the story of Bonnie Rose Hershberger (Diane Villegas). Bonnie Rose seems intent on living down to her parents's low expectations, even ditching their funeral to get disastrously drunk in a dive bar across town, thus abandoning her teen son Tommy (Grey Blanco) to take charge of both his grandparents' memorial service and the giant froggy cookie jar containing their cremains. In the still-watchful eyes of her parents Al and Sophie (Pete Alden and Ninette S. Mordaunt), Bonnie Rose is a long-term loser. In the eyes of her son (who is himself beginning to get in trouble for shooting school mascots and prize poodles), Bonnie Rose is an ever greater disappointment. Packing booze, pills and a firearm, Bonnie Rose retreats to the family cabin at the edge of the woods, possibly to end it all. In the woods (and unbeknownst to all the Hershbergers), Bonnie Rose is neither a loser nor a disappointment—at least not to her long secret admirer Lionel (Charles Fisher). In Lionel's eyes, Bonnie Rose is an angel. And when Bonnie Rose encounters the surprise of Lionel's affection, she feels herself waking from her stupor into a life newly redeemed by love.

There's only one teensy catch. Bonnie Rose's devoted admirer? He's a talking bear. Sure, his name is Lionel, he's a vegetarian, and he lives in a well-appointed cave not far from her family cabin. Certainly, Lionel enjoys the BBC as well as his collection of opera LPs, and the latest delivery from Netflix. What's more, Lionel speaks in a genteel British accent, deploys a vocabulary at least twice the size of Bonnie Rose's, and dreams of having a family. But, still, Lionel is a bear. And that fact presents a challenge or two, not only for Bonnie Rose but also for Sophie and Al, who are watching from a glittery post-death cloud. (Heaven is apparently lousy with 12-step style recovery programs to assist the dearly departed deal with their surviving afterlife issues. One such program is "PAL"—or Parents of Adult Losers—and that's where Sophie and Al find themselves, watching Bonnie Rose from above.)

In Raised By Humans, playwright Erickson maneuvers these disparate settings and dramatic arcs (Lionel's cave, Al and Sophie's casino-like cloud, Tommy's meanderings) to offer a mordant comment on the ways families can destroy themselves by not listening to each other. And it is Lionel—the talking bear who thrills at the elevating civilities of human culture even as he recoils from the petty cruelties of human behavior—whom Erickson uses as the catalyst to finally bring everyone—living and dead, human and bear—together.

And Raised By Humans truly does gather its comedic and emotional momentum in the Vortex production with the arrival of Lionel, played with masterful comedic dexterity by Charles Fisher. Lionel is a delicious concoction—a little bit John Cleese, a little bit Bert Lahr, a little bit King Lear—which Fisher works to winning humorous and empathic effect. The play pivots on each character seeing their own goodness through Lionel, and Fisher's performance exults in this bear's trans-species charisma in a way that just works. As Lionel's transformed love, Diane Villegas is vivid as Bonnie Rose. Ninette S. Mordaunt makes Sophie a trashy hoot and Pete Alden captures Al's blustery bravado. Ensemble members Paul Niemi, Thane Kenny, and Jen Stephenson each ably assay double roles with comedic clarity. As young Tommy, teen actor Grey Blanco demonstrates formidable skill and interpretive intuition, capturing Tommy's vulnerability and his fearlessness with charismatic verve and a distinctive comedic flair. Together, Grey Blanco and Charles Fisher communicate the warmth at the wacky center of Erickson's play and this production is elevated by their exceptional work in two very different yet equally difficult roles.

All told, the success of Raised By Humans derives from the effervescent and infectious spirit infusing the ensemble, both on and off the stage. The cast clearly delights (and succeeds) in selling painfully punny jokes, and Charles Fisher works marvels with the many "bear" bits festooning Erickson's script. David Richard Jones's direction and production design is light-handed, punctuated with signature touches of sophisticated wit. (The framed poster of My Fair Lady adorning the wall in Lionel's cave is an apt bit of meta-theatre.) Likewise, Fisher's deft characterization of Lionel is subtly amplified by Teddy Eggleston's simple but effective costume and make-up design (indeed, Eggleston's work throughout the production is meticulously hilarious). The set, built by a crew from Central New Mexico Community College under the leadership of Valeria Rios-Giermanowski, is comparably thoughtful and transporting.

The production succeeds because of the evident delight brought by all to Erickson's play. Everyone involved—from the house-manager to the cast to the audience—seem buoyed the generous spirit guiding Susan Erickson's unlikely but utterly sensible love story, which reminds us that love has the power to heal all wounds ... especially those suffered by anyone who had the misfortune to be Raised By Humans.

Raised by Humans by Susan Erickson, presented by Vortex Theatre and directed by David Richard Jones, runs through December 5, 2010, at The Vortex, 2004 Central Avenue SE, Albuquerque. Show times Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sundays at 6 pm. $15 general admission. For reservations, visit vortexabq.org or call 505 247 8600.


Photo: Alan Mitchell

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