Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arthur's reviews of Fellow Travelers, Underneath the Lintel, Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales
Among the coping devices for dealing with this maelstrom, one of Max's friends suggested that the experience might make a good show. Max was incredulous, but began jotting down ideas and incidents. Those notes, in collaboration with three different composers, became Ball: A Musical Tribute to My Lost Testicle, an hour-long show that premiered just months later at the 2016 Minnesota Fringe Festival. It was one of the major hits of that year's fringe, and since then Max has toured the show around the region between other duties on and off stage.
Ball... returned to the Southern Theater this past weekend for just six performances. I missed the Fringe performances, but the authenticity of Max's narrative, told with a blend of delightful comic bravado and heartfelt genuine emotion, showed why his little show drew bravos from Fringe-goers, and continues to earn cheers wherever it is performed. Most of us have had some connectiona family member, friend, or co-workerto a cancer patient and stumbled over how to be supportive without making our loved one uncomfortable and how to talk easily about things that brought up our own worst fears. Some of us have faced that same diagnosis as Max and confront a blend of feelingsanger, regret, terror, sorrowwhile trying to make those good souls trying to comfort us at ease with their discomfort. Max has fully told the truthas he states up front, he does not "pastel-ify" cancer with pink ribbons and running for the cure. Ball is brave enough to tell the truth: gross, painful, often hilarious and tuneful.
Nine musical numbers, reminiscent of Jeff Bowen's jaunty score for [title of show}, are each dedicated to a different aspect of Max's experience. These are tethered together with spoken monologue. At no time does Max seem to be trying to impress us with how much he suffered, how brave he was, or how cleverly he has turned his ordeal into an entertainment. He simply tells us what happened, and how he felt, and that is quite enough. Yet the show is laden with wit, humor, even goofiness, and fully immersed in Max's warmth and generous heart.
The show's opening number takes us from New Year's morning bliss to post-surgical haze. From there, Max introduces us to the doctors, nurses, volunteers and therapists who become his companions on his tour through Cancerville. We learn about "The Poison Party" (chemotherapy) and "Chemo Brain" (the effect of drugs on our thinking, from memory loss to social paranoia), and witness an absurdly unsexy "Seduction," where Max offers his grossly compromised body to his boyfriend. We see assorted knit caps worn to conceal the inevitable hair loss, and hear Max's letter to his lost right ball, a letter that begins sentimentally but turns accusatory as Max rails out at the missing gonad: "You had one job to doto not get cancer! And you blew it." His remaining left ball (in the form of a puppet) serves up a rousing testimony to the virtues of having just onestarting with the opening vamp of A Chorus Line's "One," then breaking out into a medley of one-themed songs such as "You're the One That I Want," "One Less Bell to Answer," "One (is the loneliest number)," and lots more.
The most tender moments in Ball... come when Max talks about his father, who was also afflicted with cancer, but the far more lethal bone marrow cancer. He compares his travails over several months to his father's three-year long battle, leading up to the most transparently personal song, "Brave." Max's candid and beautiful lyrics, set to music by Jason Hansen, extend well beyond the cancer ward, and could apply to anyone engaged in honest self-appraisal. Max closes with "I'm Goin' to Live Anyhow Till I Die," affirming the joy to be found in life, even as we know that sooner or later we all come to the same fate.
Music director Jerry Rubino joined Max on stage with his keyboard, turning out accompaniments that amplify the mood of each piece. Ball... had virtually nothing in the way of physical production. Max performed in front of a pair of drip-bag holders, with IV bags containing different colored liquids hanging from each; a music stand and stool; and a basket of props. Director Nikki Swoboda is a longtime associate of Max, which seems to have served to guide Max in playing a character that is himself without losing any authenticity. Even though Max is re-visiting episodes in his life that are now over two years old, we feel his very immediate sense of being in the present throughout the play.
Max Wojtanowicz reports that wherever he has performed Ball: A Musical Tribute to My Lost Testicle, he has had audience members respond effusively to his honest portrayal of his experience, feeling their own experiences as cancer patients, as family or friends of patients, or as cancer-care professionals validated. For Max, this show is more than a chance to get himself up on stage, but a mission to bring support and healing to others who have been on the same journey. At a talk-back session after the performance I attended, two people in the audience shared their own stories with frankness rarely found among strangers. The performance the following night was sold out to a conference of oncologists, who certainly brought their own experience sets to the theater. However, while Ball... may be propelled by a mission, it is also an artful piece of theater. Along those lines, it will play in September at the 2018 United Solo Festival on Theatre Row in New York City, the world's largest festival of solo theater performances.
I am confident that Ball... will return to play public performances in the Twin Cities. The Catalysts, the theater company for which Wojtanowicz serves as artistic director, welcome inquiries about bringing the play to community centers, faith organizations, college programs, and other groups that think its message would be meaningful to their members.
Do not be put off by the ribald title or fears that the play is morbid or self-pitying. This is an honest, insightful, entertaining and ultimately uplifting theater work that deserves to be high on your "see it the next time I have the chance" list.
Ball: A Musical Tribute to My Lost Testicle, presented June 20 through June 24, 2018, by The Catalysts as part of the ARTshare series at Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. For information on ARTshare go to southerntheater.org. For information on The Catalysts go to www.thecatalysts.org.
Written and Performed by: Max Wojtanowicz; Music: Andrew Cooke ("Seduction," "PSA," "One Medley" arrangement), Michael Gruber ("Opening," "Poison Party," "Chemo Brain") and Jason Hansen ("Brave"); "Everything Happens to Me", music by Matt Dennis, lyrics by Tom Adair, additional lyrics by Max Wojtanowicz; "I'm Goin' to Live Anyhow Till I Die", from Tintypes, based on a song by Shepard N. Edmonds; Director: Nikki Swoboda; Music Director: Jerry Rubino.