Gwiazdowski in Youngblood Theatre's "Cartoon."
There's plenty of mayhem in Youngblood Theatre’s production of Cartoon, but there’s no shortage of smarts in both the script and the staging of Steve Yockey’s 2008 play. An Orwellian political fable set to a Looney Tunes beat, it’s a candy colored allegory of the sort that Marx or Nietzsche would love—you can just picture them camped in front of the tube on a Saturday morning, scarfing up bowls of Fruit Loops in their PJs.
Yockey’s cartoon world is set entirely in the play room of Esther, a tyrannical toddler with a Betty-Boop voice (she’s played with sinister charm by Lindsey L. Gagliano). The oppressed masses are a collection of toys, who begin each monotonous day with a spunky jingle/theme song (Yockey’s brilliantly repeats the song a few times, so we feel their tedious pain). The trouble starts with…well…Trouble (played with gangly, Ray Bolger charm by Jason Waszak), a toy who starts a revolution of sorts by stealing Esther’s very large hammer. Things go pretty well for Trouble at first (he appears triumphantly in Che Guevera beret and fatigues), but as his fellow toys start to feel the sugar-buzz of freedom, things get a little messy.
Winston Puppet (played with wonderful physical detail by Jordan Gwiazdowski) casts off his Marionette-string shackles and ends up as an immobile heap on the floor (no Pinocchio, he). The twin Manga girls, Yumi (Alexandra Bonesho) and Akane (Sydeny Mei Ruf-Wong) direct their newly unbridled desire toward the same hairy-chested object, Rockstar, a teddy-bear teen idol who is terribly misunderstood (Andrew Edwin Voss). The results are fatal. The play’s other romantic leads, Suitor (David Franz) and Damsel (Jessie Mae Skibek), are free from their frozen longing to actually act on their “love,” but Suitor’s idea of a romantic gift is a bit too explosive for a couple that has only started dating.
There’s no guillotine or gulag in Esther’s world, but Cartoon paints the same picture as any number of history lessons—from Nero to Robespierre to Stalin. Here the picture is supercharged by Eric Schallhorn’s chaotic scene design and Tommy Simms’ striking animations, which punctuate the scenes with stick-figure torture scenes and commercials for an all powerful world corporation. Director Michael Cotey blends all these elements into a stage story of frenetic energy and crystal clarity. And he extracts some truly touching moments from the plight of Yockey’s archetypes. Cartoon is one of the biggest projects in Youngblood's short history, but there's nothing lumbering or staid about it. It will confirm your suspicions that the rumors of the death of American theater are greatly exaggerated.