Entertainment » Theatre

That Time the House Burned Down

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Apr 12, 2016
Noah Simes and Lizzie Milanovich in 'That Time the House Burned Down'
Noah Simes and Lizzie Milanovich in 'That Time the House Burned Down'  (Source:Fresh Ink Theatre)

MJ Halberstandt's "That Time the House Burned Down" is the Boston area playwright's follow-up to last summer's "i don't know where we are but i promised we're lost," which was produced by the Boston Teen Acting Troupe, and last month's Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston production of "The Launch Prize."

Like the earlier two plays, "That Time the House Burned Down" mixes serious business with laughter. In this case, the chuckles and concerns stem from the dynamics of a not entirely functional family. Daddy (Scott Colford) initially seems like a typical indulgent father -- but is his laid-back approach to parenting more symptomatic of disinterest and negligence? Mommy (Karina Beleno Carney) seems overprotective, until it becomes clear that she's tightly controlling what her kids are allowed to see, hear, and do out of a fear that they may discover (or figure out) that they are adopted.

The kids themselves are more or less all right. Daughter (Ally damson) is the older of the two; she's starting middle school, but she still clings to Karma (Lizzie Milanovich), her dolly. Karma is fittingly named, because if anyone is pushing Daughtery toward the discovery of the family's secrets, it's her: "Ask her why you look so different," Karma encourages Daughtery, who is of Asian descent.

Daughtery's brother, Sonny (Marc Pierre), is African American. He's a typical rambunctious ten year old, oblivious to superficial differences between himself, his parents, and his sister. When Daughtery starts getting pets -- a goldfish, a hamster, parrot, a bearded dragon -- he's keen to participate in the naming of the creatures, if not necessarily their upkeep.

It's the bearded dragon, called And A Half (Noah Simes), who narrates the events of the last few months. It's been a whirlwind of parental tension and dead pets, with each of Daugherty's animals being done in by various accidents and mishaps. The thing is, through some sort of karmic catch -- and Karma plays a role here, too -- the same soul keeps returning to all the pets that Daughtery ends up adopting. Once he's no longer a goldfish, and able to retain a thought for more than a millisecond, And A Half and Karma begin to devise a plan to help Daughtery piece together the puzzle that's been agitating her -- and what better place for the project than the play room, a toy-and-game filled space that the children share?

Simes and Milanovich rule the show on one level, with Simes operating and giving voice to various pet puppets (designed, with storybook color and form, by Marc Ewart), while Milanovich's Karma -- who is something of a troublemaker, as well as a guardian angel of sorts -- brings a jolt of self-possessed attitude to the stage. (You can't help thinking that Karma's middle name is Id -- and suspecting that she's a foreshadowing of the confident individual that Daughtery is developing into.)

But Carney and Colford are the heart of the play in other ways, each of them consumed by unbalanced priorities that drive them apart degree by degree; theirs is a deftly sketched marriage in free-fall, and they nail their characters' complex mixtures of insecurity, resentment, and near-panic at the overwhelming responsibilities of career and parenting.

Daughtery and Sonny are the play's most overt crux, though, with the story being propelled by Daughtery's slowly growing awareness that things in her home are not as they should be. Something is going to give -- but will it be in a controlled and mindful way? Don't bet on it. Fate is rarely so kind... though, one could argue, even the most devastating reversals of fortune happen for a reason and can lead to happy outcomes.

Stephanie LeBolt directs this heartfelt, energetic show, while scenic designer Ryan Bates captures its magical essence with set that almost literally swirls with the accoutrements of childhood. Your inner kid will get a nostalgic kick of innocence recalled, even as your inner adult smiles sheepishly in recognition of the sins and failings that mark, and mar, maturity.

"That Time the House Burned Down" continues at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre through April 23. For tickets and more information, please go to http://freshinktheatre.org/that-time-the-house-burned-down

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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