By D. A. Blackburn
The Force (of friendship) takes center stage in Joseph Zettelmaier’s “The All Childish Things Trilogy,” but never more than in the final installment. And while initiated audiences may think they’ve got a grip on the work after two shows, they’re in for a surprise. The playwright has saved some of his most potent work for last.
“Episode III” picks up right where “II” left off. Kendra has been abducted by a vengeful Mafioso, and it’s up to the boys to come to her rescue — to save the princess. Along the way, they rebuild broken bonds, discover a new friendship and explore the cultural and personal impact of the “Star Wars” movies. And, of course, they provide lots of laughs — and a powerful message — in the process.
As in its predecessors, the level of acting and direction in “Episode III” is superb. Patrick O’Connor Cronin, Patrick Loos and Brian Thibault all turn in performances that show a genuine evolution of their characters. Most notably, Cronin’s Dave Bulanski has undergone a dramatic growth, from neurotic and obsessive social outcast to thoughtful, engaging friend and hero. He has truly become the Luke Skywalker his cohorts have always believed him to be. Loos’ Max Farley, too, has matured into the realization that while he loves his childhood friends, the time has come to put his daughter and his girlfriend at the top of his priority list. And Thibault’s Carter Sloan has come to understand the depth of his love for Kendra and his friends. Even villain Al DiMartino (Chris Korte) — though still firmly planted in the Dark Side — has become more human, more in touch with his need for companionship.
The beauty of all this is that Zettelmaier has woven enough context into the trilogy to make the evolution of his characters feel very genuine. The audience is party to the motivations that have shaped their transformations, and these very deep characters become almost real over the course of three productions.
“Episode III” also sees the addition of a wholly new character, Joel O’Brien (Dave Davies), an army veteran and social outcast as moved by “Star Wars” — though only the original “Star Wars” — as the work’s three main players. Davies’ excellent appearance injects a fresh dose of humor to the work and also yields the most poignant moment of the entire trilogy as “Episode III” draws to a close.
Zettelmaier’s script and the acting that brings the third installment to life are completely on par in quality with the fine standards set early in the series, but there are noticeable differences from start to finish.
First, and foremost, the downward spiral in the quality of the sets and properties that became evident in “Episode II” is even more pronounced in this final segment. Where “Episode I” had real pizza, “Episode II” had imaginary beverages. In “Episode III,” even the glassware has disappeared. While a minimalist approach to theatrical properties is not always a detracting factor, a more fully realized production value, or at least a more consistent one, would be a drastic improvement for the trilogy. This would hardly warrant comment were the discrepancy between the first and final installments so great.
In “Episode III” Zettelmaier also shifts his technique a bit, to incorporate a good deal of action on the periphery of dialogue. In many scenes, he employs pantomime to illustrate the march of time, and in some cases, to move elements of the plot forward while other aspects unfold simultaneously through dialogue. This tact can be a bit distracting at times, but not to the point of significant detriment.
This pantomime element is also utilized quite cleverly in conjunction with Alex Gay’s lighting, to establish the climax of the production’s action — an explosion that sends all on stage flailing backwards in slow motion, only to recover real time mid-fall. This is a very carefully coordinated choreography for the cast, and they manage it with uniform grace.
As in “Episode II,” Kevin Young’s fight choreography comes off smoothly and efficiently for some big laughs.
When all is said and done with the trilogy as a whole, the cumulative effect is that of one of the most endearing theatrical offerings in recent memory. “All Childish Things” bares the hallmarks of great theater — intense drama, potent emotional movement, exceptional comedy and relatable, richly written characterizations. And there is much to be said for the sensation — after some six hours of theater — that though the production has drawn to a perfectly satisfying conclusion, one hates to see it end.
‘All Childish Things: Episode III’
Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff Ave., Hamtramck. Plays in rotating repertory through July 17. $20. 313-365-4948. http://www.planetant.com