Father Panic!, Dan Carbone's new solo show now at the Garage, makes a compelling case for giving theater artists the freedom (and the resources) to experiment.
The show, a multimedia exploration of Carbone's childhood, was developed as part of the Garage's RAW (resident artists' workshop) program, which offers free rehearsal space and a 12-week residency to create a new work of art. After three months, the work premieres, whether, in the words of artistic director Joe Landini, it's "sink or swim."
And despite a few flubbed lines, uncooperative folding chairs, and questionable musical interludes, Carbone is definitely a swimmer. His piece, under the direction of Joseph Graham, weaves together character sketches and anecdotes from what must have been an awful childhood in reality -- he attended Catholic school and had a brother in a 20-year coma -- but that, on stage, Carbone renders with shrewd observations and offbeat humor.
The opening scene, when Carbone relives his toddler self, is one of the show's strongest. At this stage all he wants to do is watch puppets on TV, but televised French lessons are often all that's on. To illustrate this horror, Catherine Debon appears as the teacher, repeating benign sentences such as "Where is the library?" in ponderous monotone, stretching her lips and her tongue to show just how one ought to enunciate. She is live, seated at a desk before the audience, and also on video projection, captured on a nearby screen by the live filming of Philip Bonner, a.k.a. Bulk Foodveyor, who is also onstage.
Carbone starts to interact with the projected image, using shadow puppets to give the teacher glasses, pick her nose, and then, with real puppets, enact a scene in cartoon gibberish. His puppet language and the French lesson create a surprisingly musical call-and-response of incomprehensibility, so much so that at first you don't notice that the sample French sentences have shifted surreally to "I hate myself. Do you hate yourself, too?"
More often, the screen functions as a portal into Carbone's memory, showing scenes staged in dioramas with figurines (at all times we can choose to look either at the projected image or at Bonner as he manipulates the miniature sets), pages from his mother's compulsive note-taking, or other documents from his past (including a TV Guide from the early 1960s showing just how many French lessons might air in a single day), all of which lend the proceedings the gravitas that only nonfiction can provide.
But the real success of the production is the specificity with which Carbone renders the characters of his early life: the way his mother tried to preserve his childhood drawings by covering each individual line with a piece of scotch tape, or, drawing on her belief in reincarnation and her own psychic powers, told him, with a witchy cackle, that in a later life he'd have "lumps"; the way his father taught his sister to drive by only allowing her to drive in reverse in circles around her school, the two of them "living in their very own parallel universe."
Not every risk pays off. Musical sequences (by Andrew Goldfarb on the guitar and foot drum) drag and, in hanging out in G-Major too long, sentimentalize. References to Carbone's Catholic schooling fall back on well-worn stereotypes; one reference to a chocolate-withholding nun is straight out of Christopher Durang.
But most of the work's problems can be worked out as it continues to develop. In the meantime, what the Garage has shown is how exciting it can be to be a part of the creative process.