Sept. 10, 2004


The dark side of Bright Ideas
By David Ollington

For what would you kill? We all possess a dark side and carry the capacity to destroy. Most parents would agree they'd kill to protect their children.

Playwright Eric Coble has taken a darkly satiric spin on parental protective instincts and human potential to manifest evil. The Unicorn Theatre current run of Coble's play Bright Ideas deals with when a mother and father resort to murder, not so much to protect their son, but to enroll him into the best preschool possible.

(l to r) Nathan Darrow as Joshua and Katie Gilchrist as Genevra in the Unicorn Theatre's 2004/2005 Season opening production, Bright Ideas by Eric Coble. (photo by Cynthia Levin)

Every Unicorn production begins with a voice-over of Cynthia Levin (Unicorn Artistic Director) reminding the audience to turn off their cell phones and pagers, and to remove candy from wrappers before the production begins. Bright Ideas commences with Levin's recorded voice speaking to a crowd of toddlers, telling us we can go out and play in 50 minutes, and to turn off our cell phones. The set, designed by Atif Rome, depicts a fairytale, castle playground; coupled with Levin's matronly tone, the simple concept of the production clarifies: We, the audience, are children in a preschool.

Genevra (Katie Gilchrist) and Joshua (Nathan Darrow) balance their respective careers with the rearing of their young son, Mac. The play unfolds as they search for a quality preschool. Through the grapevine they learn of the top-notch preschool, Bright Ideas. Coble's characters consistently compete — for spousal attention, sex, power and prestige. The young couple, Genevra especially, fixate upon their ambition and their toddler's development.

Despite quality alternatives, Bright Ideas becomes the Holy Grail of preschools. We meet a rather disagreeable coworker of Genevra's, Denise (Andi Meyer). After seeing her ruthless competitive behavior in Genevra's workplace, we learn that Denise has a child in Bright Ideas. What begins as a casual conversation over dinner between Joshua and Genevra turns into a plot to murder Denise (Denise's ex-husband lives in another city), leaving an opening for Mac at Bright Ideas. The young parents toss off the idea as unthinkable until Genevra reads a bedtime story to Mac about a protective mother wolf that loves her cubs dearly and will protect them. The story activates Genevra's inner killer. She goes online to research poisons, discovers an undetectable herbal combination that kills in a way that closely resembles a heart attack.

They invite Denise to dinner and choose pesto as the ingredient to carry the poison. Denise arrives and proceeds to make direct passes at Joshua while Genevra prepares the pasta in the kitchen. Marital infidelity is a repeated motif in the story. After much fumbling and last minute second thoughts, they serve the dish of death. Denise eats and collapses into her plate of pasta.

Act I led up to the murder. Act II focuses on the family's experience in the preschool and Genevra and Joshua's demented breakdowns. Genevra practically takes the school over. Her newfound power has her challenging the behavior and decisions of the teachers, getting people fired and igniting the assertiveness of the other parents. Joshua dives into bottles of liquor, loses his job, withdraws into apathy.

Coble put a great deal of focus on Mac's fourth birthday. Several characters (Meyer, Michael Andrew Smith, Vanessa Severo, and Heidi Van Middlesworth play 15 roles between the four of them) explain how the fourth birthday marks the child's character and level of accomplishment. Mac's fourth birthday brings the story to a violent climax.

Coble delightfully makes continued reference to Shakespeare's Macbeth. While preparing the poisonous meal, Genevra sees before her not a dagger but a mortar and pestle in which she grinds the deadly herbs into the pesto. Joshua's drunken delirium has him pensively washing, not blood off his hands, but basil.

Coble, the Unicorn's creative staff and the actors have created a world of aggressive ambition, competition and wicked humor. The show presents people in constant competition for placement, status and each other's spouses. Mac never appears onstage and that coupled with the nature Levin's opening announcement makes us feel like we're Mac, watching these dangerous clowns, our parents, stumble over their own uncontrollable passions.

Director Joe Price chose to play the script with a broad, histrionic style. The Unicorn used a similar attack with last season's The Minneola Twins, perhaps marking a current movement or trend in the theatre's work. This added to the concept of the audience as the children, the characters move big, speak big — large in their behavior as a toddler might view an adult. The extreme nature of Coble's words may make this approach fetching for a director and cast, but the dark humor of Bright Ideas may have surfaced more if the characters struck an occasional, believable, deeper chord. The production succeeds in horrifying us but not in moving us to hilarity.

The leading actors work together energetically and contrast each other in a way that accents Coble's characters. Darrow practically dances his role. His Joshua repeats inspirational words from the Oprah magazine, "I am burning lava" as he jogs in place with an endearing gyration of the hips. His boyish and energetic approach chillingly feeds into his portrayal of the depressed, alcoholic Joshua in Act II. Gilchrist's Genevra contrasts the chaotic, wiggling Darrow with a deadpan, grounded portrayal that easily erupts into a frantic, threatened mother wolf. She repeats her own mantra, "I am the mother wolf."

Rome's set design offers imposing castle battlements, sinister like the fortress of Macbeth, and large, again giving us the feeling that we're looking up at the world through the eyes of a three-year-old. A charming rotating cylinder with a fairytale palace design turns to reveal a new setting or to enter and exit characters. Jeffry Cady's lighting design makes the most dramatic commentary on the action with the use of color against the backdrop. Cady used a palate of lurid hues to again make the experience seem huge for us, but still child-friendly. The stage could be summed up by calling it violent giants in a bloody Candyland game.

Bright Ideas runs through Sept. 26 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main Street. Call 816-531-7529 for tickets or visit

David Ollington is a Kansas City-based writer and teaches at Kansas State University in Manhattan. He can be contacted at or



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