A teenage girl’s return to her hometown following a ten-year absence takes both the introverted orphan and the audience observing her journey-into-adulthood on unexpected paths in The Sparrow, now getting a supremely theatrical West Coast Premiere by Coeurage Theatre Company, “Los Angeles’ only pay-what-you-want theatre.” (They’ve even trademarked the slogan.).
Playwrights Chris Mathews, Jake Minton, and Nathan Allen don’t immediately reveal the reasons Emily Book (Katie Pelensky) has come back to Spring Farm, Illinois.
The townsfolk hold a meeting in preparation for her return. Emily expresses her trepidations to the man driving her home. Her host family The McGuckins, inform her over dinner that she can have “Sara’s room,” news which doesn’t sit well with Sara’s kid brother Charlie and which prompts Emily to remind Mrs. McGuckin that “I’m not Sara.”
Coeurage’s The Sparrow keeps us longer in the dark than the play’s published script, which follows the dinner scene with a (presumably videotaped) flashback to the life-changing event that had Emily sent away to boarding school, and without the specificity of that sequence, some audience members may find themselves wondering what the fuss surrounding Emily’s return is all about.
On the other hand, anyone who’s read the blurb accompanying the Coeurage production will know the reason behind Emily’s arrival in Spring Farm: “A small-town girl returns home 10 years after a tragic accident that claimed the lives of her entire class.”
Throughout most of The Sparrow’s first act, we follow Emily’s new life with little clue that Mathews, Minton, and Allen’s play is going to be anything other than a heartwarming dramedy about a teenager’s reintegration into a life once led.
Emily’s handsome young biology teacher, Dan Christopher (John McKetta), pairs her up with student body leader/head cheerleader Jenny McGrath (Lillian Solange) in hopes that Jenny’s popularity will rub off on the new girl in town, and his strategy works.
Emily learns how to play dodge ball, the basketball team prepares for another losing game, and Jenny and her fellow cheerleaders concoct a scheme that might put Jenny’s life in danger.
It’s about this time that The Sparrow, already bouncing back and forth between family drama and high school hijinks, reveals itself to be something entirely unexpected.
It’s hard to write about The Sparrow without revealing spoilers, but since once again anyone reading preshow publicity will already have heard this one, here goes: Emily has special powers, and The Sparrow turns out to be this female superhero’s backstory (à la Bruce Wayne’s witnessing his parents’ brutal murder).
If it’s not already obvious, The Sparrow defies easy categorization, but it’s precisely its “all-over-the-placeness” (and the truly inspired work of director Joseph V. Calarco, collaborating with choreographer Tasheena Medina and composer Gregory Nabours) that makes the latest from Coeurage such a heady, mesmerizing theatrical experience.
Black umbrellas, characters in silhouette, folding desks, and wheat stalks all play their part in Calarco’s vision, as do recurring bird-masked figures whose significance we will ultimately discover.
I’m guessing that not everyone will take to The Sparrow’s almost schizophrenic nature. (A pig dissection sequence that has Mr. Christopher lip-synching to Mika’s “Everybody’s Gonna Love Tonight” wouldn’t normally figure in a play featuring scenes as somber as some of The Sparrow’s.)
I did take to it, almost unreservedly so, and though I think the production would work even better if the reasons for Emily’s return were made more explicit early on and if we got earlier hints that our heroine’s powers might be superior to your average everyday human’s, Coeurage Theatre’s The Sparrow pretty much had me from hello.
Also, unlike Broadway’s Peter Pan, Emily needs only the magic of imagination, both The Sparrow’s ingenious director’s and our own, to fly.
Leading lady Pelensky anchors the production with a darkly captivating performance as the troubled yet potentially triumphant Emily, and she gets topnotch support from McKetta and Solange, whose work reveals surprising depths in both Dan and Jenny, particularly as past secrets get revealed.
Joel Gelman and alternate Katelyn Gault provide rich support as a pair of still grieving parents, in addition to stepping into various cameo roles.
In fact, there’s not a single ensemble member (David Crane, Audrey Flegel, Nardeep Khurmi, alternate Delilah Kujala, alternate Jessica Lightfoot, Jeffrey Nichols, Danni Spring, and Cyrus Wilcox) who doesn’t get countless opportunities to shine—as townspeople, cheerleaders, and basketballers. (Flegel’s bratty Charlie, Khurmi’s gung-ho coach, and Nichols’ caring driver are just three who deserve special mention.) And not only does The Sparrow’s ensemble get plenty of opportunity to strut their dramatic-comedic stuff, choreographer Medina has them dancing almost as often as if this were a musical, including a dodge ball sequence that turns disco and a prom dance done to The Violent Femmes’ “Blister In The Sun.”
And speaking of music, The Sparrow’s secret weapon may well be two-time Ovation Award winner Nabours’ hauntingly gorgeous, almost nonstop underscoring that adds enormously to the production’s emotional impact.
Kristin Browning Campbell’s starkly dramatic scenic design consists mainly of screens of various sizes, one of the reasons for which becomes clear whenever lighting designer Benoît Guérin works his silhouette magic. Costume designer Rebecca Guzzi aids ensemble members immeasurably with outfits that clearly distinguish character from character. Calarco’s sound design, Abraham Rodriguez’s props, and TJ Marchbank’s fight choreography are integral contributions as well.
Emily Goodall is stage manager. Kimberlee Soo is assistant director. Marchbank is dramaturg.
Daringly risk-taking, The Sparrow may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those willing to go along with its tonal shifts and flights of fancy, it ends up a richly rewarding evening of 99-seat plan theater at its most imaginative best.
Coeurage Theatre Company, The Historic Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Bl., North Hollywood.
November 6, 2015
Photos: John Klopping