The charmingly bouncy pop lyrics of the Go-Go’s echo through the theater: “Pay no mind to what they say. It doesn’t matter anyway. Our lips are sealed.” I know this song. Well, at least I remember the Go-Go’s playing on the oldies station that my mom listened to from the car radio when I was a kid.
Whether or not you’re a child of the “decade of shoulder pads and stonewashed jeans”, 80s-style tunes have a nearly universal tendency to get people to bounce along and join in spontaneous song. This is part of what makes 1812 Production’s most recent show, I WILL NOT GO GENTLY, so fun.
The entire production, written by Philadelphia’s queen of comedy, Jennifer Childs, is a blast from the big hair past—though I may be a little young to lay that claim. This one-woman solo piece features Childs using her wide-ranging talents to play nearly a dozen characters and side parts convincingly. Perhaps her greatest achievement in this musical play is to take on the role of a teenager and a 90-year-old woman in the course of the same show—and capture both with great conviction and hilarious results.
Childs seizes the audience’s attention and holds onto it, taking us all on a wild and, at times rather bizarre, ride. The play focuses on her portrayal of a permanently irritated and aging British rock sensation, Sierra Mist (not the soda), struggling to make a comeback. In other roles, she garners sympathy and connects with the audience as Abbey, a struggling mother reminiscing about the past, confused about the present, and worried about the future; she is absurd as Daphne, a washed-up television star turned motivational speaker who offers advice on how to become a more confident you—including power poses for every situation from “hailing a cab to sitting shiva.”
Despite Childs’s detailed characterizations, as a 23-year-old I could more closely relate to the dreadful, technology-consumed teenager than to the middle-aged main characters. The show is geared towards those pushing 50 (and up): characters bemoan feeling uncool, joke about C-section scars, and reminisce about the good old days.
At its heart, I WILL NOT GO GENTLY centers around themes of aging, particularly for women—whether gracefully or (to put it gently) not quite. It focuses on issues that arise during a time in life that is not considered glamorous, distinguished, or important. This is potentially a very moving subject. But although it is funny, light-hearted, and entertaining, the show feels more like a comedy routine than an attempt to reach a deeper emotional core or say something new about its themes.
Nevertheless, the production keeps audience members of all ages laughing with outrageous and suggestive songs written by Childs and composed by Christopher Colucci, such as “Jack In My Box,” and amusing jokes related to generation gaps and aging. In addition to a witty script and score, the production displays a tremendous amount of work from the entire creative team. The stage seems set-up for a rock concert, with a rock-n-roll appropriate large-scale set, by Lance Kniskern and colorful lighting by Shelley Hicklin. The generally simple costumes by Rosemarie McKelvey allow Childs to change quickly while on stage and move smoothly into each character.
A large video screen features substantially, with a series of funny short clips designed by Jorge Cousineau. Though technology can be distracting as part of a theatrical performance, director Harriet Power effectively works these clips into each scene, most memorably with a look at the music video documentary of Sierra Mist’s song “Y2K,” which will give you flashbacks to the days we spent preparing for the technology apocalypse.
Following Dylan Thomas’s famous poem, from which the show gets its name, Childs invites audience members to defy the concept of simply fading into old age. Through a series of jokes, the show encourages audience members to embrace the middle stage of their lives and refuse to fade into oblivion. And how can we disagree when they use irresistible 80s-style pop tunes to persuade us to follow suit?
[Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street] April 21-May 15, 2016; 1812productions.org