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'The Children' struggles to spin Greek tragedy into a happy ending

'The Children'

'The Children' Bruce Silcox

There's a compelling question at the heart of Michael Elyanow's The Children: How do young trauma survivors fight their way free of confusion and guilt, and go on to live happy adult lives? Elyanow wraps this question so thickly in allegory, though, that by the time the play reaches its climax we're almost too confused, ourselves, to care.

The Children

Pillsbury House Theatre
Pay-as-able; $25 suggested

Elyanow's point of departure is the Greek tragedy of Medea: the woman who murdered her own children in a vengeful furor after her husband, Jason, proved untrue. The Children, now having its regional premiere at Pillsbury House Theatre, imagines a scenario where Medea's progeny (Kate Guentzel and Kurt Kwan) are saved by a heroic woman of Corinth (Tracey Maloney) who uses magic to spirit the innocent children (and their indignant nursemaid, played by Michelle O'Neill) away from harm.

They all land in a present-day New England seashore cottage that's in the path of a dangerous storm. Wait...what? Eventually the logic behind it all becomes clear, sort of, but not without extended shenanigans involving a local gendarme (Jim Lichtscheidl) who's recovering from his own trauma involving a giant snake and a household pet. To get the idea, imagine a cross between the movies Radio Flyer (where two threatened children fantasize about escaping in a magical wagon) and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

Though the show flounders, it's not for lack of ambition or talent. Director Noël Raymond's production unfolds on a monochromatic wood-grain set, by Joel Sass, that seems to have been hewn from a single giant tree. To play the children, Kwan and Guentzel manipulate doppelgänger puppets designed by Masanari Kawahara, thus establishing distance between their adult selves and the children about (in a sense, by) whom this story is being told.

The subject matter is serious, and accordingly the play is imbued with a tremendous gravity — to the point, though, that the lighter moments fall flat. If even Lichtscheidl, one of the most reliable comic performers around, can't wring laughs from his cop's confoundment, you're left wondering who possibly could. The entire cast try to summon a sense of urgency, but the material's constantly manifest metaphorical load makes it hard to relate to the characters as human beings.

When Elyanow finally cuts his classical characters loose and brings us fully into the present, the show at last jolts to life. It's too little, too late, though. The extended post-modern toga party, with its ponderous profundities and slack situation comedy, is just too hard to come back from. The Children argues that imagination can save lives, but in this case the writer's imagination has run away with him and left the audience stranded.