Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Stinkers
Jungle Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Samuel J. and K.


Sally Wingert, Reed Sigmund, John Catron,
Megan M. Burns, George Keller and Nate Cheeseman

Photo by Dan Norman
Thanks to the wealth of children's and youth theater companies in our community, we see no shortage of highly talented pint-sized performers winning our hearts with their acting, singing, and dancing skills. Add in the many touring shows that employ young actors, with recent examples including Matilda, Fun Home, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the child talent we see onstage is truly astonishing. However, I have never before seen tour de force performances toddlers, one not yet even potty trained, like the two on for much of the ninety-minute run time of Josh Tobiessen's darkish comedy Stinkers, now having its world premiere at Jungle Theater.

Okay, I better clarify that the two characters in question—two-year old Evie and her big brother Oscar, proud to be using a potty seat—appear as puppets, beautifully conceived by Chelsea M. Warren, who also designed the ultra-realistic, cluttered set that screams "small children live here." The puppets are operated and given voice by Megan M. Burns (Evie) and Reed Sigmund (Oscar). Nonetheless, Evie and Oscar come across completely as characters and are the warm heart of Stinkers, albeit, that warmth is as likely to come in the form of a wet diaper as a cuddly hug.

Evie and Oscar are cared for by stay-at-home dad Brad (John Catron), once a chef at a failed restaurant, whose approach to full-time daddy-hood vacillates between pride and resignation. This week his work is cut out for him, as his wife has just headed off for a week-long conference. The kids are blessedly napping when in bounds Brad's neighbor and friend Calvin (Nate Cheeseman)—who can best be describe as a doofus. With a bandana around his unkempt hair, sloppy attire, and cluelessness about social boundaries, having Calvin about means Brad is essentially taking care of three children. Calvin, who like Brad, appears to be mid-30s, has no visible means of support, as he cuts a deal to remove a wasp nest hanging over Bradley's patio for twenty bucks.

Wasps are not the only stinging creatures in Stinkers as Brad's mother Joyce (Sally Wingert, droll as an emery board) rings the doorbell, surprising Brad who wasn't expecting her for three weeks—which was supposed to be her prison release date. Joyce served time for a white-collar crime, but remains a hustler whose regrets are not over what she did, but in getting caught. Making money is important to her, and she is dismayed that her son is not in the game. Along with her "special friend" from prison Lilith (a very tough-looking George Keller), to whom Joyce owes a large sum of money, she connives a ploy that gives her son the impression he has found his calling, a way to actually earn money doing something he loves while still being at home with his kids, but it is clear as day that Joyce is up to no good. Meanwhile, Calvin decides it is a good idea to hit on Lilith, making it impossible to send him away.

The title has multiple meanings in the context of the play: Joyce is what you might call a stand-offish grandma (refusing to be called that, she runs through a prepared list of alternatives, settling on "Mimi"), but that doesn't keep Evie and Oscar, whose needs and noise are neverending, from reaching out to her with their soiled hands. There is a plot afoot—rather a murky one, as Joyce's scheme, once revealed, has holes in it unworthy of the crafty dame, and Calvin's dumb shenanigans stretch credulity even as they provoke big laughs. But the real stuff going on that makes Stinkers a joy is the depiction of a parent's (Brad) limitless patience and love for his children, even with their horrible odors, gross messes, and insatiable cries for attention, and the power that love holds to shame adult stinkers into a semblance of goodness.

Playwright Tobiessen writes in the program notes that he was inspired to write Stinkers by, among other things, his love for his own two kids, and based on his play, one easily believes that he not only loves but adores them. The play is directed with a quick pace that makes the most of the various forms of humor worked into the script, by Jungle Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen, who happens also to be Tobiessen's spouse and mother to those same beloved kids. As a family affair, Stinkers casts both the Tobiessen-Rasmussen household and the state of middle America's hard-pressed families in a warmly winning light.

One of the first things announced about this production was that it heralded the return of Sally Wingert to the Jungle after fifteen years. Wingert, who has spent her recent years killing it in plum roles everywhere else in town, portrays Sheila as an unrelenting con artist, living life by figuring out the angles and making sure she gets her ample share. Her sharp humor serves as a great defense, and her ability to feign concern for others—especially those as weak-minded as Calvin—is both alarming and hilarious. She is able to look somewhat pathetic when she appears in her frumpy prison release clothes, yet straighten her back and snap to attention the minute she sniffs the smell of cash.

John Catron plays the loving if somewhat desperate Brad, shuttling between potty calls, story-reading demands, sibling squabbles, and other calls of duty with irreproachable patience. His sweet retelling of a bedtime story, "Hiccup the Pickup," which he created for his children, getting them to join in with wide-eyed delight, is one of the loveliest scenes I have seen in decades of theatergoing. Any father would love to be that man. Nate Cheeseman shamelessly makes Calvin every bit as dumb on stage as he must be on page, both with guileless reading of the lines and well-oiled physical comedy. As Lilith, George Keller displays the greatest character arc as Lilith, convincingly moving from icy prison protector to a woman trying to start life anew the best way she knows how.

But back to the puppets and puppeteers. While their agility with the rods make Oscar and Evie feel alive, Reed Sigmund and Megan M. Burns must be celebrated for their role not only in moving, but in speaking for these two toddlers, with squawks and half-formed words, whining, cheering, and naively questioning the world they are discovering with each new day. Sigmund and Burns use their own body language and facial expressions, even as they work the puppets, to amplify our recognition of the feisty fragility of these young lives. It wouldn't do for the adults involved to talk about these kids. Having them on stage is essential for conveying the life within this house, and Stinkers fully succeeds in doing just that, a spot-on marriage of performers, design, direction and writer.

As a play, Stinkers does not rise to the level of greatness, but as a love-letter to the joys and frustrations of being a parent, and a burlesque of what bad parenting looks like in the guise of Wingert's deal-making Joyce, it offers a warm uplift, along with lots of laughs, ably delivered by this strong ensemble. It feels well suited to the season, a show to enjoy and bask in the good feelings it conveys without having to think it through too deeply.

Stinkers, through August 18, 2019, at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $40.00 - $50.00. Seniors (60+) and students with ID, $5.00 discount. Special Friday night discounts: patrons under age 30 and for residents of zip code 55408, $25.00; high school and college students (with valid ID), $20.00. Rush tickets: available two hours before performance for unsold seats, $25.00, $20.00 . For tickets call 612-822-7073 or visit www.jungletheater.com.

Playwright: Josh Tobiessen; Director: Sarah Rasmussen; Set and Puppet Design: Chelsea M. Warren; Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Designer: Sean Healey; Assistant Set Design/Puppet Builder; Josephine Earley; Costume Design Assistant: Ash Kaun; Dramaturg: Julie Dubiner; Stage Manager and Properties: John Novak; Technical Director: Matthew Erkel; Production Manager: Matthew Earley.

Cast: Megan M. Burns (Evie), John Catron (Bradley), Nate Cheeseman (Calvin), George Keller (Lilith), Reed Sigmund (Oscar), Sally Wingert (Joyce).


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