Friday, April 22, 2005

Back again

Hey Madison theatergoers: to commemorate April's being National Autism Month, Encore Studio for the Performing Arts is reprising Real Life, its play about Asperger's Syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum. I raved about the play last year in a review I'm pasting below.

Go see it, already.

Nov. 19, 2004
Page 21

Another world
A musical comedy takes on Asperger's Syndrome

By Kenneth Burns

Just how many instruments can she play? Kelsy Schoenhaar, star and playwright of Encore Studio for the Performing Arts' Real Life, begins the show by striking ominous chords on a xylophone, and over two acts she plays solo dirges on mandolin, bass, guitar, ukulele, violin, cello, keyboard, recorder, saxophone, trumpet, harmonica, concertina, French horn, banjo, clarinet and djembe, among others. Schoenhaar's musical performances alone would be breathtaking enough, but they are just part of one of the most moving theatrical productions I've seen in some time. Real Life, in the Bartell Theatre's Evjue room, is mournful, sad and strange, and also funny and exhilarating.

Encore is a theater company for people with disabilities, and Real Life focuses on Asperger's Syndrome, which a program note describes as being like a dash of autism: people with Asperger's have normal intelligence but also have autism-related symptoms, like social difficulties, obsession with routine, and excessive literalness with language. Some people with Asperger's have extraordinary talents, and when Schoenhaar's character, Karen, is not playing one of her many instruments, she delivers wrenching monologues about an educational career in which she earned three bachelor's degrees, a master's degree and a doctorate but then, because of her disability, kept bombing in job interviews.

When Schoenhaar is not performing, the action breaks away to vignettes about three characters with Asperger's Syndrome: troubled Max (Max Woodson), who creates public disturbances and can't hold his job cleaning a movie theater; Linda (Christie Stadele), who is blind but maintains a clerical position and entertains herself with a group of imaginary friends; and Jay (Moritz Burnard), who develops crushes on random women he encounters at bus stops and is, incidentally, a brilliant scientist and a millionaire entrepreneur.

The play follows this trio through school and into their working lives, and their experiences are often painful. But Real Life is, marvelously, a musical comedy, and Burnard and Stadele ease the tension by singing catchy songs--mostly tangos and marches--about their struggles and desires. The best song, performed by Stadele, is an ode to the sound of pieces of paper being ripped up. It's pretty odd, and also fabulously original and effective.

Sixteen supporting actors, some disabled, some not, play various friends, employers, aides and tormentors. One of the best smaller roles is Jay's chess buddy Colin (Colin Reilly), who delivers his lines by pressing buttons on a device attached to his mechanized wheelchair. Colin's computerized voice makes his deadpan delivery all the funnier.

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