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Working (Review)

NKU turns a simple show into an extravaganza

By Mark Sterner · February 25th, 2009 · Onstage
The curtain opens on a bare stage at Northern Kentucky University with a few gray geometrical objects scattered about. There's a striking lack of intimacy and human scale in this environment. When you see 39 cast members stream on (there were only 26 in the 2000 ATC production in Chicago), you realize director Ken Jones has planned his production of Working as an extravaganza.

The empty stage floor accommodates one thing very well: a dance show. To accommodate the needs of the choreography, other elements of the play have been altered. The stage is swept bare, and dancers back up most of the play’s monologue-like numbers. The razzle-dazzle of Jones’ staging of Working is not automatically a flaw, until you consider the authentic simplicity upon which the play’s emotional effects hang.

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For this simple but powerful show, based on a book of interviews by Studs Terkel, actors become American workers who talk about their working lives. The acting must be sincere and heartfelt, as 25 laborers divulge their deepest hopes, dreams, fears and resentments in words and song.

A typical scene concerns a lowly retail checker. As she sings about her tribulations, several phantom checkers dance behind her. The ridiculous positions they assume are reminiscent of a silly television commercial. Who are these girls? What do they represent or suggest about retail? The dancers distract from the soloist, and thus from the felt meaning of the play.

If you stay until the Working’s end, you will be rewarded by a triple whammy of monologues that are theatrical and emotionally authentic — by Charlie Roetting (a fireman), Simon Powell (a copy boy) and Bradford B. Frost (an iron maker).

The play ends with Frost hoping his boy doesn’t grow up to be like his old man. The appropriate interpretive dance in the background makes this the most powerful moment in the show.

WORKING, presented by Northern Kentucky University’s Department of Theatre and Dance, continues through Sunday.



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