Thriving down at the inlet, The Cherry can be counted on to offer the area’s most unusual theater productions. Opening its fifth season, “The Shoe” is not an adventure in footwear, of course, but rather an absurdist meditation on parenting, mental disorders, and dysfunctional behaviors in a wacked-out world. Oh yes, and fear of dentistry.
Written by David Paquet, a Québécois playwright, and translated by Leanna Brodie (in its English premiere), “The Shoe” limns the pain of the human condition while lacing it with crazed comedy––definitely helping the medicine go down.
The Cherry has been transformed by Daniel Zimmerman into an animated space: the high rear wall a bright blue sky filled with puffy clouds––and also an enormous set of dentures. White plastic furniture is effective shorthand for a dentist’s office, and at right stands the cartoon façade of a yellow house. Two hanging mics suggest we’re in for some bold announcements.
Director Sam Buggeln has, in Paquet’s piece, a substantial absurdist play to work with. A mother, Melanie, takes her difficult, often hysterical son, Benoît, to a dentist to address his toothache. The receptionist, Helen, coaxes the anxious, retiring dentist, Simeon, to treat the boy, whereupon Simeon discovers the boy is disturbed internally as well as emotionally.
That’s the basic context, but what unfolds is fascinating and funny, repellent and oddly restorative. Benoît (Josh Witzling) is bedeviled by wild tantrums, categorized progressively by his all-too-exhausted mother (Amoreena Wade): The Hissy Deluxe, then the Epileptic King Kong, culminating in the Electric Musical Chair.
Benoît’s fits, or meltdowns, evoke every parent’s nightmare: the inability both to help one’s child and to endure the pain the child causes. For his part, the dentist, Simeon (Godfrey Simmons), is also in pain: smart and skilled but socially awkward, preferring plants to people. When he first reluctantly appears, he’s swathed in gauze like a mummy, on the assumption (he later reveals) that bandages indicate he’s hurt, so others will treat him more kindly.
Everyone is damaged, Paquet insists, including the manic, fix-it-all receptionist, Helen (Emma Elizabeth Bowers), who keeps the action moving but self-medicates with martinis to forget her miscarriages and ex-husband. She indulges her maternal instincts by adopting a deformed puppy (or is it a cat?), which Benoît, in an angry fit, smashes with the hammer that Simeon has extracted from his throat. (Wait, let’s not give away all the high points.)
In this world, the women, however disappointed in life, are the diehard caretakers, but it’s finally Simeon who coaxes the miserable boy toward healing –– first with his cathartic, hilarious Zumba dance, then with plant therapy. Benoît’s emetic excesses end up summoning a lush green garden unfolding on stage, and a final choice between enlightenment and destruction –– literally hanging in the balance, as he’s poised with a light bulb in one hand and a hammer in the other.
The play’s juxtaposition of the deepest human problems with ridiculous or impossible events proves salutary and perceptive. But the divergence in acting styles in this production undercuts what Paquet’s absurdism can accomplish. Wade’s Melanie, with a somewhat little-girl voice, is too often affectless; her mother should be worn out but not dull. The director’s choice to have Bowers’ Helen present as an over-the-top caricature seems off; her silliness is just too dissonant. Striking a more convincing note are the men: as the distressed Benoît, Witzling is highly limber and energetic but also persuasively real in his calmer moments.
Godfrey Simmons shines in the role of shy dentist, from his first mummified mumbles and erratic stutters to his personal disclosures and genuine concern for the afflicted boy. Whether competent professional or uninhibited dancer, his Simeon is layered and interesting, offering the perfect mix of reality and unreality this genre demands.
It’s Simeon who leads the boy to new meltdown-dance stages, including the final one he calls “You don’t want to die; you want to live differently.” “The Shoe” reminds us that, like these characters, we might well be lonely, unhappy, and fearful, possibly self-destructive and despairing, but that we can be both cracked and beautiful.