Early in Stephen Kaplan's A Real Boy, now playing at 59E59 Theaters, Miss Terry, a kindergarten teacher, calls the parents of one of her students in for a conference. Her concern? Their son, Max, is using only black and white crayons to draw — a choice, Miss Terry believes, that may point to abuse. It turns out that the real reason is quite the opposite: overprotectiveness. "We live in a complicated world," Max's dad tells Miss Terry, explaining why he won't allow his son to use colors, "and all we want is to make things as simple for him as possible."
This attitude, contrived as it is, echoes real-life objections to school curricula. Last month, Florida passed a law allowing any resident of the state to challenge classroom material he or she considers inappropriate. And back in 2010, Arizona banned ethnic studies classes in K-12 public schools. Given these circumstances, crayon color in A Real Boy seems to symbolize race or ideology. If Kaplan had stayed focused on this metaphor, his play might have worked. Instead, the color concept fades as other symbolic strands get knottier and knottier.
Now would be a good time to mention that Max's parents are puppets. In the world of the play, puppethood seems to be a nonhereditary condition that some people develop as early as childhood. Puppets occupy a place in society analogous to that of queer people in the United States. "I have many good, good friends that are puppets," Miss Terry assures Max's parents. Before long, Max himself sprouts a string in her classroom, a development that sends him crying into her arms and pushes her compassion to the, well, max. She refuses to part with the boy, citing the legal principle in loco parentis. She has the loco part right.
Incredulous? You should be. While Max's palette is limited, Kaplan's is too varied. He's colored his play with so much commentary — about oppression, family values, and, once Max's kidnapping sets off a political controversy, the state's role in education — that the result disorients rather than illuminates.
The staging, under the sloppy direction of Audrey Alford, adds to the confusion. The puppets carry out everyday actions inconsistently, at one point miming them (putting a cake in the oven) and at other times performing them (painstakingly opening a kitchen cabinet). There's a more basic problem, though: It's hard to see what's happening. The stage area is a wide strip with audience members seated on either side, basketball court-style. But because the stage is a lot smaller than a basketball court and the puppets are three-foot marionettes, the action often gets blocked from view by actors' bodies.
Which, frankly, is just as well. The puppets are unprepossessing wooden contraptions with expressionless papier-mache heads, designed (a generous term) by Puppet Kitchen Productions. Worse, their operators don't inhabit them as characters; they carry them like props. Max's dad occasionally raises his hand and his put-upon mom shakes her head, but the puppeteers — Brian Michael and a puzzlingly cross-gender-cast Jason Allan Kennedy George — put so much expression into their own bodies and faces that they distract from the puppets themselves.
While the puppets are underwhelming, the human characters are overdone, especially Jenn Remke's Miss Terry. Her concern for Max is so extreme that when she delivers a line such as "I have always thought of my classroom as a home for my students, and so my taking Max is simply bringing him home," she sounds more like a cult leader than a teacher. Katie Braden as a tweeting lawyer advising Max's parents and Danie Steel as a congressperson who supports Miss Terry's "family values" are also wackos, Braden at least entertainingly so. As the conflict-averse, self-preserving principal, Jamie Geiger embarrasses himself least.
One bright spot in the production, literally and figuratively, is Ann Beyersdorfer's set. The kindergarten classroom she's designed roils with color, from the paper rosettes dangling above to the pink, green, blue, red, yellow, and orange foam mat on the floor. At one end of the stage, a small proscenium frames the puppets' home, its black-and-white appliances and furniture opposing the classroom decor. At least there's plenty to feast your eyes on even if you can't always see the action.
Somewhere deep in A Real Boy is a profound question about education. Should parents be allowed to limit what children learn in school, whether it has to do with different colors or different ethnicities? For all her delusion, Miss Terry recognizes there's a fourth "R" as important to teach as reading, writing, and arithmetic: reality. If Kaplan and other members of this production had studied reality more closely themselves, they might have given audiences a real play.
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