Over the last two weeks, for their fall 2019 Mainstage production, the Barnstormers performed The Curious Savage, a play about money, class and the all-too-thin line that separates the sane from the mad.
All in all, it was a deeply funny and enjoyable staging, buoyed by the performances of the ensemble cast, and it was an excellent addition to the Barnstormers’ repertoire of fantastic productions.
The Curious Savage takes place at the Cloisters, a sanitarium housing a group of eccentric patients, from the hyperactive and childlike Fairy May to the prim and proper Florence, a housewife who dutifully cares for the doll that she believes to be her son.
One day, the sanatorium welcomes a new patient — Mrs. Ethel Savage, a wealthy widow whose children have conspired to commit her in order to keep her from tarnishing the family name and wasting their inheritance on charitable endeavors.
As she fights her unjust incarceration and bonds with the other patients on the ward, Mrs. Savage is caught up in the maelstrom of madness that surrounds her, culminating in a raucous conflict over the fate of her family’s fortune.
Right off the bat, I have to acknowledge the uniformly excellent performances by all of the cast members. The Curious Savage is undoubtedly an ensemble piece, and every actor — whether portraying a patient at the Cloisters or one of the self-obsessed members of the Savage family — was fantastic in their roles.
In particular, freshman Hanna al-Kowsi was hilarious as the brashly mute Mrs. Paddy. Although her time in the spotlight was limited, al-Kowsi sold the performance almost entirely through her body language, and her presence in the background of every scene was unexpectedly delightful.
On the other hand, sophomore Sandy Clancy — who played Fairy May — brought an almost overwhelming energy to her role, and her line deliveries made funny jokes even more hilarious.
Of course, praise must also be given to senior Maya Singh Sharkey, whose performance as Mrs. Savage anchored the entire show.
The character plays a number of roles within the narrative — sometimes playing the straight man to the other patients and providing them with sage wisdom, sometimes being an over-the-top comedic force in her own right — and Singh Sharkey deftly combined all of the aspects of the character into a nuanced and incredibly enjoyable portrayal.
In particular she shined in the scenes where Mrs. Savage manipulates her stepchildren into doing her bidding.
She brought an energy to the character’s melodramatic wailing and Machiavellian mind games, and her energy was an absolutely incredible delight to watch.
Singh Sharkey admired the kind and eccentric personality of the characters that she played.
“She has to make herself happy, and I think that’s a feat, trying to make yourself happy independently… And making the most out of life is the core of her character,” she said. “She’s interesting in all kinds of ways, especially the way that she treats the people that are very different from her with a lot of kindness… Having that contrast with the familiar and the alien, with the alien being more familiar and kinder than [her] family is really interesting.”
On its own, The Curious Savage was already a very funny show; the script takes great delight in exploring the quirks of each of its characters. For example, it derives a great deal of humor simply by putting those characters in the same room.
However, the jokes never come across as mean-spirited or judgmental of its mentally ill characters. Everyone (except for maybe the villainous members of the Savage family) is treated with respect, and it feels as if even the characters are in on the jokes.
Still, the strengths of the performances took an already strong script and elevated it even further. There was almost never a time that I felt that I could focus exclusively on the speaking character, because the background performances were almost as interesting and laugh-provoking as the ones at the center of the stage.
As a result, the second act — which put every character in a room together and let the chaos play out from there — was absolutely phenomenal. In fact there were times when I missed some chunks of the main dialogue because I was too busy paying attention to other characters’ playing off of one another in the background.
In the end, the Barnstormers’ production of The Curious Savage was an intensely funny and energetic event that blended the over-the-top personalities of its motley cast with surprisingly grounded emotional beats.
Although it is a little too late for me to encourage people to see it, I would highly recommend attending future Barnstormers events. I am excited to see what the group does next.