A competent critic has to own his or her biases before dispassionately evaluating a piece of art. So when I received an invitation to see and review Jackalope Theatre’s seasonal offering, “Crumble (Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake),” I grappled with three immediate, visceral reactions:
1. Christmas themed material is often treacly, irritating and unrealistic.
2. How is actor Tim Parker going to play a building?
3. Harrison Ford and Justin Timberlake as characters? Oy.
Had I refused to set aside these prejudices and surrender to playwright Sheila Callaghan’s bizarre holiday masterpiece, I would have missed the work’s central message: Rituals are supposed to provide predictability. But we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t have anything figured out. All we can do is dream, love and cope.
Press materials describe “Crumble” as a “narrative of an aftermath that is irreverently odd, acutely genuine and absurdly hilarious.” I believe that’s the closest one can come to a synopsis of Jackalope’s first show of its seventh season. And yet there’s so much delicious stuff that’s hard to pigeonhole. Would you believe it possible to watch Janice (Kristen Magee), a damaged 11-year-old girl, lose a hand in a Christmas morning incident of her own design and have it serve as a hopeful turning point for her family?
The Christmas prior, Janice and her Mother (Charlesann Rabensburg) lost father and husband, respectively, in a freak household accident that may or may not have been influenced by a bitter, neglected old building. The Apartment (Tim Parker) is a frayed remnant of its prior glory days as a stately mansion, with a storied occupational history. With the patriarch gone, the domicile is inhabited by a grieving and disturbed (in Janice’s case) mother and child who have so much trouble trying to communicate, there’s no energy left for basic maintenance.
Appalled by the idea of being overlooked to death, the Apartment assumes an active agency that the work’s human characters desperately lack. It’s a weird and awesome story arc with legitimate suspense that is so because of the magnetic work of Tim Parker. He emotes, he leaps, he agonizes, he strategizes. It is a sharp and satisfying contrast to Mother’s listlessness.
Janice is a live wire, but contains her hyperkinetic thoughts within the perimeter of her depressed and cold bedroom. There she indulges in emotionally raw exchanges with her broken Barbie dolls and dreams of love and salvation in the form of a 1990s era Justin Timberlake (Curtis Jackson, who also convincingly plays the Father and — go with it — Harrison Ford).
The numb and stagnant little family is completed by Mother’s sister Barbara (Rachel Slavick), an infertile, bereaved cat lady who still serves as the story’s highest functioning human being. Barbara’s love and commitment to Janice and her mom is both enabler and salvation – one of many authentic narrative tensions.
At the top of this review, I mentioned a reservation with holiday material. It is often bombastically inauthentic. Everyone’s a winner, safe, warm, full and loved. It’s a turnoff for the alienated many who feel excluded from the reverie. Christmas is not a celebration for all mankind, and in other cases, seasonal lessons and family bonding might take place in a hospital emergency room rather than around a festive dinner table.
Sometimes we need to “Crumble,” (traditions, sense of self, environment) before we can build something new and more healthy. Seeing this truth articulated onstage is a different flavor of community identification.
Jackalope’s production is not all dourness and pain. Excellent comic relief is provided by the versatile Curtis Jackson, who plays the titular Timberlake as well as Mother’s escape fantasy man, a whip wielding Harrison Ford. A different form of gallows humor is offered by the nuanced psychotic ramblings of Janice.
Kristen Magee absolutely nails a troubled, intelligent pre-teen. After the loss of her beloved father, Janice will only allow death or romantic rescue as options until her frayed mother’s unconditional acceptance forces her to open her mind, figuratively and literally.
“Crumble” is my first Jackalope experience. As I wound my way out of the theater company’s venue, Broadway Armory Park, I considered the synthesis between environment and material. The Armory is a historical treasure of old architecture, meandering hallways, locked doors and trapeze classes. Random, curious and kind of thrilling. That’s also an appropriately concise judgment of Jackalope’s production.