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
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,
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
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
Bright Ideas runs through Sept. 26 at the Unicorn Theatre,
3828 Main Street. Call 816-531-7529 for tickets or visit www.unicorntheatre.org.
David Ollington is a Kansas City-based writer
and teaches at Kansas State University in Manhattan. He can
be contacted at Ollington@aol.com