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Shel Silverstein Should Not Grow Up

By Amy Friedman, Crimson Staff Writer

The program for “An Adult Evening With Shel Silverstein,” which ran until August 31, forewarned the audience that the “show is not suitable for children.” This might seem like a surprising disclaimer to accompany the work of an author best known for child-friendly poems, but the play took on a lot, from wild obscenities, to killing horses, matricide, infanticide, and being raped by a bunch of Koreans (we never find out why the Koreans are in the story specifically, but it gets dwelled on). The show was the last of Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theater’s run, and was made up of a series of eight short scenes. Director Joey R. Longstreet ’16 and his cast of four were able to get plenty of subtle and over-zealous laughs with the material at hand, but the script itself left something to be desired.

Longstreet took a simple approach to the play as a whole. The set design by Samuel H. Rashba ’15 was all black and minimalistic; costume designer Olivia R. Miller ’16 dressed the actors simply, in black T-shirts and jeans. This gave the show a feel reminiscent of an underground improv show, which gave silverstein’s bizarre comedy some sense of genre.

The two acts each had four scenes—all containing classic strands of Silverstein—making for equally hilarious, odd, and awkward “adult” themes dropped into more or less innocent scenarios.

Instead of migrating completely from his beloved childish poems, Silverstein maintained the same narrative rhythm. Scenes go from the mundane to the hysterical at the drop of a hat. The same way that Silverstein lists gruesome, fake symptoms of a girl skipping school in his poetry for children, he likewise includes crass lines meant to make skin crawl in his adult play—the least offensive of which went something like “My dog will suck out your corneas, chew them up, and piss in your eye sockets.” These moments are meant to be funny, and many of them are, but many also felt forced. Some just felt like Shel Silverstein stories with a quick break for an outburst of obscenities, as in “No Dogs Allowed.” In that scene, a woman attempting to convince a country club waiter that her dog was her husband used foolish, childlike quips, but after a few minutes of this fun-for-the-whole-family hoax, the woman started cursing and hurling insults that were certainly for adult ears only. Even though the actors often succeeded in making those uninspired moments funny, the delivery of the bawdier scenes sometimes fell flat.

But those scenes that were successfully delivered were greeted by uproarious results: “Abandon All Hope” dealt with facing one’s fears, and “The Lifeboat is Sinking” featured a character trying to choose between murdering his mother and murdering his wife. The purely nonsensical “No Stronking” stood out because it was well-acted, simple, and full of the soon-to-be-learned symbolic moral. Anna G. Kelsey ’14 carried many of the scenes as she deftly put on the faces of a jealous wife, annoyed “valley girl” saleswoman, and gruff waitress.

Perhaps Longstreet’s best decision was his careful placement of signs throughout the production. Each scene featured its own sign with the scene’s title hung on the wall, and with each blackout the actors removed signs from the wall and took them through the door, dropping them on the ground. It appeared at first that these awkward piles of signs were all part of some technical difficulty, breaking the suspension of disbelief. In the final scene, however, the pile becomes bigger and bigger as a sign vendor throws dozens of signs on the ground, unable to find any sign adequate for an imploring woman’s needs. She wishes that she and her husband could have showed signs to one another, even acting out an entire conversation that could have saved her marriage. But, as she tells the vendor, the only sign that would’ve been useful to her was one that read, “It’s too late.” This scene consolidates the production’s central message: that signs not only serve to tempt readers into defying them, but can also oversimplify communication.

Silverstein’s adult stories don’t hold a candle to his “A Light in the Attic,” but Longstreet and his cast of players did an excellent job considering the material. HRDC’s production managed to drive home a powerful message, which was vital in terms of the cohesion of Silverstein’s diverse scenes.

—Staff writer Amy Q. Friedman can be reached at aqfriedman@gmail.com.

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