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A CurtainUp Review
a cautionary tail
Though given a spirited and at times joyously physical production, a cautionary tail is an uneven work, whose various themes never quite settle into a satisfying whole. For the most part though, it's a fun, fresh take on familiar subjects, made all the more enjoyable by the sheer enthusiasm and energy on stage.
Primarily, it's the story of Luke (the lively and convincing Tony Vo) and Vivienne (the talented Cleo Gray), Stuyvesant High School students and siblings dealing, as teenagers do, with friends, relationships, sexuality, and grudges. Vivienne struggles to decide between a sensible Ivy League education, and a more risky arts education. Luke, meanwhile, makes a play for the affections of the older Kaelen (Stephen Stout), who may or may not be gay.
Pena navigates this territory easily, capturing the attitudes and woes of a generation with special skill. Luke and his two friends Brandi (the hilarious Madeleine Bundy) and Koren (Bonnie Milligan, who treats us to more of her impressive singing chops during intermission) have an especially natural chemistry, and their quick, sarcasm-ridden patter, whether online or in person, never misses a beat.
What separates Luke and Vivienne from their friends is their overbearing mother, more an abstraction of the overbearing "Tiger Mom" than a real character. Dressed in an over-the-top, almost campy, garb, and prone to sharply choreographed acts of intimidation and violence, Bobby Foley gives this character a highly theatrical wickedness.
In a separate plot line Foley also plays Tin, a bitter office worker passed up for promotion for not being leadership material, who has a most convincing breakdown while delivering the Stuyvesant commencement address. Tin doesn't get much stage time, but his dilemma is another timely piece in the conversation about being Asian in America.
There is an air of the magical to these events, due in part to the occasional appearance of a purple-suited traveling salesman (Alex Grubbs) peddling "life insurance." His role is to lend a larger sense of importance to Vivienne and Luke's choices.
The play's supernatural bend intensifies in the second act, which starts with a surrealist dream sequence set in an eerie, haunted house-like environment (courtesy of David Meyer). While it offers a window into Vivienne's traumatized mind, it does little for the plot.
After that, we're catapulted into the future, years after the events of the first act transpire. That jump, and the loss of the characters' younger, spunkier selves, is jarring, and never quite justified. It sets the play careening off of what seemed like a straightforward course, and the effect is disorienting.
Vivienne and Luke's fates, it seems, have both been irrevocably altered by the act of digital bullying that ends the first act. That this deed becomes the primary focus of the second act (though perhaps predetermined by the play's title) comes as a surprise. If there is a connection between that event and the race-centric themes in the play's first half, it's not easily traceable.