By Celia Wren
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
The average whoosh doesn’t get much respect. The whooshing sound of a washing machine in motion -- that’s banal. A just-cleaned dish towel whooshing onto the floor -- that’s annoying. And who wouldn’t prefer bird song to the sound of a bird fluttering onto a branch?
But you have to appreciate some key whooshing noises in “Jason Invisible,” the earnest, winningly acted drama for young audiences in a world-premiere run at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater. Adapted by Laurie Brooks from a novel by Han Nolan, the play ponders the challenges facing a teenager who’s struggling to care for his sick father.
Self-conscious and shy, and terrified that his dad will be institutionalized, young Jason (the appealing, gawky-looking Mark Halpern, in a blue baseball cap) has trouble opening up to schoolmates. But when he needs companionship: Whoosh! Three invisible friends swoop in, like superheroes answering a distress call.
The plotline featuring the quirky invisible pals -- Dream Girl (Rana Kay), Smart Guy (Michael V. Sazonov) and Crazy Glue (Christopher Wilson) -- adds a valuable note of humor to “Jason Invisible,” which deals with serious issues, including mental illness, troubled families and the ramifications of broken promises. Co-commissioned by the Kennedy Center and VSA, the international arts and disability organization, “Jason Invisible” often features its hero talking to the audience. In keeping with that break-the-fourth-wall aesthetic, the production includes a facilitated discussion, in which theatergoers are encouraged to offer insights on the characters’ choices and quandaries. (The show is recommended for viewers ages 11 and older.)
But director Rosemary Newcott and her team don’t allow the play’s edifying impulses to overwhelm its ultimately hopeful story or its flashes of levity and suspense. Designer Misha Kachman’s set, a stylized urban landscape with a bleak mesh fence and chiding overhead street signs (Wrong Way, Slow: Speed Bump), seems to express Jason’s anxious mood, but it also has an urban-adventure video-game vibe.
That vibe intensifies when the invisible friends materialize -- Wilson’s Crazy Glue swaggering and boasting, Kay’s kooky, ponytailed Dream Girl striking flirtatious poses and Sazonov’s know-it-all Smart Guy looking square and retro in his bow tie and daffodil-colored sweater. (The costumes were designed by LeVonne Lindsay.) Deftly tailoring their voices and body language to distinguish between the realistic and fantastic characters, Wilson, Kay and Sazonov also depict fellow students in a support group Jason attends.
Michael John Casey contributes a poignant portrait of Jason’s mentally ill father, whose fixation on Greek myth leads him to see the Furies everywhere. Jason worries that he may have inherited some psychological instability: He hears voices ceaselessly commenting on his life. Sound designer Christopher Baine -- creator of those whooshes -- allows us, too, to hear these unnerving disembodied voices, which repeat phrases such as “Uho!” and “Isn’t that a shame!” Baine’s achievements also include evoking a speeding getaway car in the play’s most exuberant scene.
Is Jason at risk of mental illness, or does he suffer from normal self-consciousness? How much responsibility is too much for a young person? What happens when trust breaks down? With questions like these, “Jason Invisible” aims to spark a conversation that will not end at the theater door.