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BUCKET LIST BRAVO: World premiere play explores friendship as love

"You've always been there for me."


COLUMBIA, Mo 10/1/13 (Review) --  A punchy, fast-paced script pushes The List  from zero to sixty in no time, as a 4-person cast re-enacts seventy years in the friendship of a man and a woman. 

The world premiere play shows again at Columbia's Talking Horse Theatre, Oct. 4, 5, and 6

Jason Cavallone's powerful dialog explores a rare kind of relationship:  platonic love.  

Both playwright and actor, Cavallone plays Mike, a big-hearted fellow whose elastic expressions convey his sometimes goofy but always earnest adoration for Jo, the awkward girl he meets in grade school who becomes the love of his life -- and the woman he leaves behind. 
 
Jo and Mike write out and check off dozens of dreams on a 50-part bucket list Cavallone uses as a dictionary of their lives.   The first item -- Go to College -- is the most predictable, especially for two smart young people whose witty banter and single-line zingers had the audience in stitches from beginning to end.
 
The list quickly gets more zany.  Between going to college and item 50, Mike and Jo will "be the weirdest people in the room"; "make fun of people they don't know"; "rent an apartment with wacky neighbors"; "make a movie"; "draw a comic book"; "visit a voodoo priest in New Orleans," and get married -- but not to each other.

Which makes their final item both poignant and ironic:   "We will be friends for the rest of our lives."  A bucket list doesn't get more complete than that.  Or does it?   Cavallone leaves the answer until the end.

The List's to-die-for writing -- it's an actor's dream to play such moving and meaty roles -- is also its chief shortcoming.

The script is so well-honed -- all dialog, with virtually no set design, no costumes, no moving parts -- it overwhelms the actors in spots, leading to great acting in some roles but so-so performances in others.

The main characters alone assume at least eight roles:  little Mike, young adult Mike, middle-aged Mike, old Mike; little Jo, young adult Jo, and so forth. 

As little Jo, Paige Runge pulls off a difficult feat:  convincing an audience she is a sassy, ornery, geeky, adorable, bratty, loving kid, with little more than the power of language, with words and without.

She joins little Mike and his boyhood friend Ben in a charmingly-simple rendition of "how can we all say a bad word the loudest" that had audience members in hysterics.   And when she presents little Mike with a ceramic something-a-rather she made in school -- might be a vase, might be an ashtray -- the gentle nature of their relationship emerges, and the audience falls in love.

As young adult Jo, however, Runge is lackluster.   Her dialog, strong on the page, comes across as just so many words.  The script highlights this effect -- strong performances here, weak performances there -- by maintaining its own strength throughout the play's two hours.   It's like a yardstick, straight and true, gauging how well the actors measure up.

In recurring male and female characters, including a two-person chorus reminiscent of Shakespeare, Joe Holloway and Cheryl Metz tackle the play's most difficult challenge:  being everyone else all at once.   

Holloway is at his best as a jovial but sinister locksmith who lets his smile -- and his sidearm -- demand a ridiculous overpayment from a hapless Jo and Mike, who've locked their keys in the car.  

Metz takes charge of the stage with her assertive women:  harried mothers, officious friends, bossy neighbors -- people who end frivolity to move the world forward.

But Metz and Holloway also suffer the yardstick effect.  As the Shakespearean chorus that moves the play forward, they seem hurried and distracted.   No wonder: only seconds after setting the stage, they're back onstage in new roles.
 
Finally Cavallone, whose malleable features reminded me of a young Alan Alda; a playful Nathan Lane; and a bemused Darrin Stevens from Bewitched. 

His giddy, goofy, earnest love for Jo is so contagious the surprise ending comes as no surprise.   Instead, Mike reveals the play's central irony:   A man spends his entire adult life working a carefully-crafted bucket list, only to leave off the most important thing of all.
 
Though Cavallone too suffers from the yardstick effect -- weak and strong performances in uniformly well-written roles -- his soliloquy toward the play's end may be a classic of modern theatre.

I heard audible sobbing in the audience that didn't let up until he did.   Neither maudlin nor sentimental, the feelings Cavallone expresses set the bar for portraying love as friendship between a man and a woman.   Now grown old, Mike's infectious hopefulness is tempered with regret.  "What if?"  he keeps asking.  "What if?" 

Jo, however, never asks that question.  She never has to.  "You've always been there for me," she tells Mike, somewhere toward the middle of the play.

"And I always will be," he says.  In The List, truer words are never spoken.
 

-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat
 
 
The List  is appropriate for families with children.



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