True to its mission, The Skeleton Rep explores modern myth in a production of Wendell & Pan by Katelynn Kenney. Directed by Ria T. DiLullo, this production utilizes space at The Tank in a way I’ve never seen before, and it dramatizes the complicated and deep ways that grief can affect how we connect to ourselves and each other.
Wendell & Pan is an inquisitive tale that explores what happens to a family dynamic in the midst of grief. Wendell (Nick Ong) is an 11-year old bookworm who is trying to appease his sprite-like best friend Pan (Shavana Clarke) while coping with his grandfather’s illness. Kayla (Nya Noemi), Wendell’s older sister, is dismissive and attached to her phone, seeking solace from a not-friend. Their parents, Father (Anuj Parikh) and Mother (Margot Staub), are contending with the cold between them while dealing with their children – sometimes poorly – and their own concern for grandfather. Along their journey, they discover magic and secrets that push them apart before bringing them together.
Katelynn Kenny has the delightful ability to write humor into grief-stricken circumstance. There is something about the absentminded aspect of grief that leads a person to occasionally ridiculous behavior, or making off-hand dark remarks, and Ms. Kenny has the necessary talent not only to write this human element honestly, but to place it well within a scene. Additionally, she makes sure her characters do not reveal crucial information until it is absolutely necessary for the audience to know it – which means she excels at laying out and wrapping up her breadcrumb trails – the loveliest of those being Wendell’s monologues about exploding stars.
Both the achievement and the challenge of Wendell & Pan is that in its quest to display grief within the family, it creates the overwhelming scene of a few emotional people who are uniquely lonely and individually coping while they simultaneously miss connections with each other. While the portrayal of this passive chaos is realistic, it generates a wealth of information for the audience to digest and too many opportunities for the audience to miss a few important elements. I won’t beg the removal of important elements of the story, but perhaps more intentional bread crumbs are necessary.
Director Ria T. DiLullo and set designer Caitlynn Barrett use the space at The Tank in a way I’ve never seen before. By using levels (and removing a usual section of the audience), they ensure the magic of the space is captured in both design and movement. The actors capture a family dynamic that while slightly cliché, is genuine; they portray strange rituals and attachment to the space. And yet something is missing. There is an element of going through the motions, which is natural in the presence of grief, but I want to see a culture or tradition that is specific to this family.
Margot Staub (Mother) and Nya Noemi (Kayla) capture that teenage-girl-revolution versus joking-mom dynamic perfectly, and the brother vs. sister game is equally honest. Anuj Parikh (Father) seemed to anticipate more often than he reacted, but in those softer moments of act two, he excelled in displaying sensitivity. Nick Ong (Wendell) creates a genuine 11-year old with delightfully awkward pre-pubescence and mature intellect. Shavana Clarke (Pan) is pure energy as she walks that fine line of playful innocence and malicious mischief; her vibrant presence carries the innocent and dangerous tenor of the piece.
The set design by Caitlynn Barrett is its own enchanting spectacle. As a cross between an earthy living room and a magical tree house, the space provides an alternate sensation to the tension of the play. There are a number of oddities that stand out – the pastel blue clock, a pillow with an embroidered bird, the ship’s helm in the tree house, fairy lights, and a lawnmower – and they add to the “lived in” feeling of the play.
Emily Auciello’s sound design and compositions by Emily Rose Simons capture the joy and danger of Pan’s presence, as well as the high and lows of the piece. Miranda Poett’s light design gives and takes magic with color and intensity. Costumes by Sophie Costanzi impress youth into each character and demonstrate their ordinary humanness.
My favorite thing about Wendell & Pan is that it tells a story we do not often hear. It is about experiencing grief in childhood, thoughts of suicide or self-harm, and it says something about how people react to death or mental illness. All people experience this at some point or another, and yet it is so little discussed openly! I agree with the playwright when she says, “If we tell more of these stories, maybe we’ll feel a little less strange, a little less alone.”
Wendell & Pan, The Skeleton Rep, The Tank, 312 W. 36th St, 1st Fl, New York, NY 10018. Closes January 20th.
Tickets at http://www.skeletonrep.org/