Los Angeles Theater Review: THE SPARROW (Coeurage Theatre Company at the Lankershim Arts Center)

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by Jason Rohrer on October 31, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles


In last season’s Failure: A Love Story, Joseph V. Calarco played a veterinarian who at one point had to euthanize his good friend, a dog played by Gregory Nabours. The staged moment took less than five minutes, but remains as good an example as I have seen of the harmony of talent, skill and taste necessary to successful art. Calarco’s snakelike character exuded compassion in a completely convincing dichotomy made more poignant for me by the knowledge that he is also the best stage director of his age working in Los Angeles. Nabours’ effusive, heartbreaking dog may never be replaced as my default image of the absolute devotion of man’s best friend, the more revelatory since Nabours is also my favorite local music director and stage composer.

Katie Pelensky in Couerage Theatre Company's THE SPARROW. Photo by John Klopping.Love is not enough. Intention, native facility: not enough. A single perfected skill set: not enough. Transcendent artistic power comes from commanding not a color but the broader palette. At Coeurage Theatre Company under the bright eye of artistic director Jeremy Lelliott, the whole potential of a piece can be realized – sometimes well beyond the apparent value of its source material.

Such is the case with Coeurage’s current production of 2007’s The Sparrow, a project originated in Chicago by Chris Mathews, Jake Minton and Nathan Allen. What could very easily devolve into a pop culture stalagmite (a superhero origin story, only this time on a stage!) instead is elevated by Calarco’s direction into a graceful spire. Where the script would give us a literal and rather mundane fantasy tale, Calarco and an ensemble of 13 supply a fable rich with mythological metaphor. Nabours has scored this play like a movie, so that the gorgeous and haunting music lifts, supports, steeps in resonance, the show’s every moment. Half-good playwrights should pray that Calarco and Nabours take an interest in their work.

Lillian Solange,  Katie Pelensky,  John McKetta in Couerage Theatre Company's THE SPARROW. Photo by John Klopping.

Some years ago Spring Farm, Illinois lost almost an entire elementary school class when a bus got stuck on the train tracks. Emily Book survived but went away to stay at a special school that has now released her at the age of 17 to attend Spring Farm High as the only member of the senior class. The tiny town welcomes her as a returned prodigal, as close as most of these families will come to replacing their lost children. The orphaned Emily is so embraced by one home that she is given the bedroom of a deceased classmate. When she starts seeing the ghost of that gone girl, that’s creepy enough. But that is far from the extent of Emily’s different-ness. She is special in ways that hinder and help her transition from isolated, stand-offish new girl to the most popular kid in school, with talents and afflictions that may destroy not only her, but her entire community.

Katie Pelensky, Malika Williams in Couerage Theatre Company's THE SPARROW. Photo by John Klopping.

Not since Calarco directed The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Murder-Suicide have I seen a classroom staged so credibly, complete with specific cliques, personalities, prejudices and tendencies. In this be-careful-what-you-wish-for wish-fulfillment fairy tale, you get to play in the homecoming game and dance at the formal. You get to flirt with that cute girl and with that teacher you really like. Just as in high school, there are consequences for all of it. While this play owes much to Carrie and The X-Men, it owes just as much to The Little Foxes and Our Town. There’s a universe here made of archetypes and grotesques and real-life folks who can, of course, be as scary as any mutant or monster.

Katie Pelensky, Lillian Solange in Couerage Theatre Company's THE SPARROW. Photo by John Klopping.

This script can be predictable, disappointingly so, but this show is not. Calarco replaces and rearranges scenes for a much more intelligent result, and uses the remarkable choreography of Tasheena Medina to swing and sway the story out of dormancy into vivid life. A ladder laid on the floor becomes a terrifying precipice; people fly without wires; a half-mask, a hood, a slingshot are enlarged and weighted with import. I was twice moved to tears by the poignancy of images: a girl floating in a wheat field, a town suspended in the air as a gentle reproof for its murderous intent…All these beauties and horrors, imbued as they are with wholesome Americana, sold me – my body, my emotions – over the quiet objections of my reason. And I was very glad of it.

Joel Gelman, David Crane, Nardeep Khurmi, Cyrus Wilcox, Jeffrey Nichols in Couerage Theatre Company's THE SPARROW. Photo by John Klopping.

These actors play multiple characters with grace made glorious by the stagecraft of their handlers. As is often the case with this company, the large cast is uniformly excellent. Katie Pelensky, Lillian Solange and John McKetta have the most to do and do it past reasonable expectation, but it’s an ensemble piece, the kind that wouldn’t work if only 10 or 11 of the actors were pretty good. Everybody on this stage is on fire, ready: when a student’s hat fell off in class last night, the girl in the next desk instantly picked it up and threw it at him, showing me the hours of practice and rehearsal and dance call and family-nurturing love behind this production. It is a privilege to be in the same room with these people. I only wish the show were longer, or I in it, which is how I always feel watching something Calarco has made.

With David Crane, Audrey Flegel, Katelyn Gault, Joel Gelman, Nardeep Khurmi, Jane Lui, Jeffrey Nichols, Danni Spring, Cyrus Wilcox, Malika Williams. Scenic design is by Kristin Browning Campbell, lighting design is by Benoît Guérin, costume design is by Rebecca Guzzi, and sound design is by Joseph V. Calarco.

downloadphotos by John Klopping

The Sparrow
Coeurage Theatre Company
Lankershim Arts Center
5108 Lankershim Blvd in North Hollywood
Thurs-Sat at 8
ends on November 21, 2015
for tickets, call 3­23.944.2165 or visit Coeurage

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