Review: The Girl who Became Legend by Zach Theatre
by Michael Meigs
The form is familiar—this is a "quest" story in which the protagonist leaves home to wander through the unknown "beyond" to experience a series of encounters and adventures but eventually returns home wiser and accepted by former adversaries and critics. Sarah Saltwick's first modification is evident in the title, for the questor is female, an earnest, sweet, booted young teen. "Raina" -- that's a tell! -- lives with her mother in Dustbin, a huddle of houses where the sky is empty, the sun is hot, and almost everyone mindlessly obeys the mayor's injunction to stay inside and follow the rules, whatever they may be.
Our protagonist, played in alternation by Blakeney Mahlstedt and Lila Gonzalez, has survived this oppressive atmosphere. She blooms like a rose in the desert. An elusive raincloud peeps down at her from time to time, but the fearful folk of Dustbin deny its existence and accuse her of lying. That adamant mayor, a punisher played by Helyn Rain Messenger, castigates Raina, tying her hands and putting her up on public view as if on a pillory. When Raina escapes and ventures out into the great unknown, the mayor confines Raina's mother in the town well. Somebody has to pay for disobedience!
The playwright sets Raina up for encounters with figures of legend whom most of the very young audience members are unlikely to recognize. Parents and grandparents, of whom there's an ample number, will have no trouble recognizing the fancifully dressed Calamity Jane, Rip Van Wnkle, Johnny Appleseed, and Paul Bunyan.
Both Raina and the rain will return to revive the dismal village and the dismal spirits within it. That happy ending offers children a predictable but encouraging message: with optimism and courage to venture and learn, you'll see wonders and overcome the difficulties of your everyday. And along the way, the world will offer support and many pleasant surprises.
Director Liz Fisher's imaginative staging, assisted by Zach Theatre design wizards, charms all. The play runs a solid hour, a relatively long time for restive youngsters, yet the children were all on the edges of their seats right to the end. Fisher keeps her cast moving, Saltwick keeps characters morphing, and Zach's designers Lisa Laretta (set and props) and Aaron Flynn (costumes) come up with striking visuals. Particularly magical are the representations of water: gathering rainclouds represented by a clustter of upside-down umbrellas, Raina's struggle to swim out of a swirling flash flood, and, of course, that cheerful incandescent raincloud-on-a-stick that Paul Sanchez parades about to tease Raina's hopes. And more: the train aboard which Raina travels (top-hatted Sanchez and Jeremy Rashad Brown bearing her in a litter out one groundfloor entrance and then back in through the other); and Calamity Jane's horse Widowmaker, a rolling sawhorse construction with a big rust-colored can brought to inquisitive life by Sanchez.
All five adult actors are from Austin and have worked with several local companies. Friendly, confiding, and confident, they're completely at ease with the young (and sometimes unpredictable) audience of children. Guitar-strumming Amber Quick is Raina's mom, who never doubts her daughter's visions and is quick to celebrate her return. As Calamity Jane, the first legend to pop up on Raina's quest, Quick is exuberant, rustic, and kind. Paul Sanchez is game for anything, including portrayal of pouty young neighbor Daisy, Calamity's found-object horse, a yarn-wrapped Rip Van Winkle, and the tenor lead in a mischievous doo-wop number. Jeremy Rashad Brown has easy masculine authority in several roles, including that of Johnny Appleseed. Nathan Daniel Ford 's violin provides subtle emphasis and Ford blends easily into the swirling motion of the play. Helen Rayne Messenger's both a comic Paul Bunyan high atop a stepladder and, with long braids of blonde like Raina's hair, a hint of the woman our protagonist will become.
Cast members Messenger, Quick, and Sanchez created the music and additional lyrics. Nat Miller of Zach's Education Department collaborated with Saltwick on the staging concept.
As for Raina, the brave young character who carries almost every minute of this staging: sixteen-year-old Blakeney Mahlstedt, alumna of Zach's educational programs, has appeared regularly in Zach's major productions on the Topfer stage since 2014. She has at least three summers of SummerStock Austin behind her. (Thanks to Google for that information; there are no bios in the four-page instructional leaflet distributed at the theatre.) Mahlstedt's experience and enthusiasm shine through her performance. Plucky, articulate, wide-eyed, swift-footed, and appealing . . . what more could you possibly ask for if you're going on a quest into the unknown to redeem your dusty little town?
September 03, 2022
1510 Toomey Road
Austin, TX, 78704
Saturday, September 3, 2022 at 1 p.m.
Please join us for the reading for the development of a new family play commissioned by the Kennedy Center on Saturday Sep 3, 2022 at 1 p.m. in the ZPACC rehearsal hall at 1426 Toomey Road.
Tickets are free.
There will be limited seating, and audience feedback will help inform the development of the play before ZACH produces this title in 2023 then brings it to the Kennedy Center in February of 2024. We would love to have you there and to hear your thoughts!