Regional Theater Review: FLORA & ULYSSES (South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa)

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by Tony Frankel on February 17, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Flora & Ulysses, the best play I’ve seen all year, begins when Flora Buckman, a ten-year-old self-proclaimed ­“natural-born cynic”, saves the life of a squirrel using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. You see, the squirrel had been sucked into a neighbor’s Ulys­ses Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain 2000X vacuum cleaner. When the squirrel is revived, it has been blessed with both human thought and super-hero strength.

Flora, who is immersed in what her recently divorced mother calls “the idiotic high jinks of comics,” has a love of words (especially ones that appear inside a bubble). Her favorite comic books–The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto! and its companion, Terrible Things Can Happen to You!–give this only child the advice she lives by: “Do not hope; instead, observe.” It is this kind of girl who will take a super squirrel into her bedroom. That the rodent turns out to have the ability to write poetry on her mother’s typewriter just seems like a natural progression in this wonderful world, adapted by John Glore from Kate DiCamillo’s children’s book.

This heartbreakingly short run at South Coast Rep proves that Theater for Young Audiences (or children’s theater if you will) is mostly the best work being done in this country. Kids are a tough audience, and they’re lucky–they can let you know by squirming and talking if they don’t like a show. And the kids at my matinee were rapt, even hearing those big words of Flora’s.

Flora (the ridiculously captivating Emily James) and squirrel embark on a series of adventures close to home, where they team up with William Spiver (the geeky, officious and altogether lovable Rudy Martinez), the neighbor Tootie Tickham’s (Jennifer Parsons) hysterically blind nephew, to protect Ulysses from the apprehensive adults who want that perfectly harmless creature gone, either back to nature or…

Here’s the part I love the most: Flora’s father, George (appropriately sad-sack Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper), comes to pick her up for a visit, and mom Phyllis (wild woman Ann Noble) sends the duo off with clear-cut instructions for George to stuff Ulysses into a sack and knock him on the noggin with a shovel. Dad and daughter stop at Giant Do-Nut, where the squirrel (a hardy guy with a hearty appetite) takes a flying leap out of his shoe box and into a waitress’s hair (courtesy of endearing and magical puppeteer Alex Suha). After escaping, the runaway pair gets advice from Doctor (of Philosophy) Meescham (Celeste Den), who lives in dad’s apartment complex.

Death! Philosophy! Magic! Adventure! Humor! Is this Shakespeare? Nope. It’s just a wonderful outing that leaves all the Shakespeare productions I’ve seen in the past year in the dust. And the use of the English language here is remarkable. It’s a show that never talks down to kids. and I warrant it may even perk up their interest to learn more words. This isn’t “Theatre for Young Audiences”, it’s theater for all audiences. Surprisingly strong themes (death, divorce, loneliness) are nothing new to children’s literature, but it’s still surprising how much better-suited this two-act is for adults than any other show I can think of. Casey Stangl’s beautiful direction not only inspired a startlingly imaginative crew–who unleashed their imaginations  enough to rival any Harvard think tank–it inspired the kids, too: You should have seen the line outside after the show to get Ulysses’s autograph.

Set Design: Francois-Pierre Couture, Costumes: Sara Ryung Clement. Lights: Josh Epstein, Sound: Jeff Polunas, Puppet Design: Lynn Jeffries, Projections: Kaitlyn Pietras, and the right-on Casting: Joanne Denaut.

photos by Christine Cotter

Flora & Ulysses
South Coast Repertory
655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa
ends on February 19, 2017
for tickets, call 714.708.5555 visit SCR

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