Deep oranges and soft pinks lit the Directing Studio of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance as the soft stylings of Matt Crimp ’12 on the mandolin washed over the audience’s chatter.
East O’ West O’, a new musical based on a Norwegian folk tale and directed by Alison Pincus ’12, sold out both Friday and Saturday nights following an equally-successful opening night on Thursday. The Oriental carpets covering the floor transported the house to the mystical world created by Michelle Rodriguez ’12, Elena Faviero ’15 and Kevin Lawkins ’13.
The play began in a rickety house where Faviero, author of the libretto, introduced us to a poor peasant family. The structural fragility of the characters’ abode was matched only by the discomfort of the event that ensued: A bear approached the house to request that the oldest daughter, Ava (Su-Young Kim ’14) come away with him. Though her younger sister April (Justine Neubarth ’13) humorously lamented having to do dishes by herself, Ava pondered her choice to the sound of cute, folksy harmonies, finally deciding to leave.
The discomfiture increased when Ava met the actual bear, played by Pat Megley ’14. Megley’s bear posture brought big laughs from the audience as the band, led by Lawkins, steered the long journey of the uncomfortable pair. Rodriguez’s lyrics were coupled with skeptical glances from Ava, who wondered, “Does he want to see what’s underneath the skin of me?”
These first interactions between Megley and Kim were halting and awkward, as one might expect from a couple that has never met. However, this trepidation translated to a shaky confidence in the story, and the audience became reluctant to engage. After struggling to discuss suitable sleeping arrangements, Ava discoverd that Bear, as they have agreed to call him, becomes a human at night. His inability to divulge why is elucidated by a revelatory dream that followed; Bear, actually a prince, was accosted by a pair of trolls (Sarah Sanders ’14 and Jenny Helinek ’15), whose malicious cynicism is a great contrast to Ava’s wide-eyed innocence. Insisting that “love does not exist,” they transformed him into a bear and gave him a year to find love before Sanders’ monster claims him as her own.
The central theme Rodriguez and Faviero develop throughout the show is the meaning of home and belonging. Ava’s fascination with nature suits a Williams audience, which began to connect with her as she found a home away from home in the mountains. As she warmed to both Bear and her new dwelling, Ava sang one of Rodriguez’s most lyrically beautiful songs, “What are Ceilings.” As the couple sang, “I’m an animal, it’s true – I’m an animal for you,” Kim and Megley’s awkwardness grew endearing and the play truly hit its stride. Their growing comfort with one another allowed the audience to invest in their relationship and the complex world of the play.
The only gap in Faviero’s otherwise well-paced narrative occurred when the burgeoning indie romance between Bear and Ava was suddenly overtaken by her developing homesickness and cabin fever. Without skipping a beat, however, the plot pushed forward as Ava returned to visit her family and had a semi-comical encounter with her mother. Holly Fisher ’13 shone as she expressed motherly concerns about Kim’s relationship and wondered, “What could you possibly have in common?”with Bear.
Rodriguez continued to explore the meaning of home in “What is Right,” as Ava expressed her confusion in feeling “caught between two places.” Like many of the college students in the audience, Ava feels she’s “changed too much” to belong at home anymore. A clever parallel is drawn here between Ava’s feelings and Bear’s entrapment as an animal. Kim sparkled as she demonstrated incredible range and dynamics in this song, as well as in the next piece, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” The latter was one of the most polished numbers in the show, rich with harmonies and folksy fiddles that got the audience clapping along; both the band’s performance and Lawkins’ arrangements were consistently impressive.
When the trolls returned to claim Bear, Ava had no choice but to rescue him. John Maher ’12 as the North Wind gave her a hand along the way and earned big laughs with his unexpected gruffness. Sanders and Helinek also gave great comedic performances when Ava arrived at their troll home. Helinek was deliciously evil and Sanders brilliantly catty as they tell Kim, “You’re too late, funny-looking girl” and send her to meet Bear, whose memories had been erased. This introduced the emotional climax of the show, when Kim sang a heartbreaking reprise of “What are Ceilings,” displaying her anger and disappointment at being forgotten. This was followed by some of Faviero’s best dialogue, in which the characters’ awareness of their own narrative is wonderfully written.
While East O’ West O’s hesitating start may mean that the show was not perfectly polished, once the audience members were immersed in the world of the play, they indisputably left with warmer, prouder hearts.