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For the Love of God: "Children of Eden," at the Timber Lake Playhouse through August 7 PDF Print E-mail
Theatre - Reviews
Written by Mike Schulz   
Monday, 01 August 2011 06:00

Brandon Ford, Erica Vlahinos, and Patrick Connaghan in Children of EdenAs befits a musical based on the biblical book of Genesis, Children of Eden starts In the Beginning. Yet in discussing the Timber Lake Playhouse’s current presentation of the show, it seems more appropriate to start at the end, because the curtain call – arriving more than two-and-a-half hours after the opener – appears to be one of the few sequences in which the performers understand exactly what’s expected of them.

Of course, they can hardly be blamed for that. I dutifully attended Sunday school, and know my Bible stories, and saw another production of Children of Eden a few summers back, and I sure didn’t get what was happening here. Really, this shouldn’t have been so trying. A musical staging of the Old Testament tales of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah’s Ark, composer Stephen Schwartz’s and book writer John Caird’s offering doesn’t feature much depth or nuance, and is about as subtle as most children’s pageants. Still, this deeply sincere piece boasts a fair degree of imagination and some lovely harmonies, and any grade-schooler with even remedial biblical awareness should be able to follow the narrative; the characters may be thin and the moralizing heavy-handed and Schwartz’s ballads mostly drippy and unmemorable, but at least Children of Eden is coherent.

Oh, not here it isn’t. In general, it’s dangerous for a stage director to impose his or her own representational concept on a show that already works just fine without it, as audiences are oftentimes so busy deconstructing the added symbolism and metaphors that they lose sight of what the play is actually about. But in director/choreographer James Beaudry’s outing, there are so many concepts and storytelling conceits flying around that I, for one, watched most of Thursday’s production with my jaw agape – and not, in a Timber Lake rarity, because I was floored by the on-stage talent. As is proved by the curtain call, talent is most definitely present; with that joyous spitfire Sophie Brown leading an impassioned gospel number, the cast sings and sways and claps with gleeful abandon. It’s no wonder, though, that the abandon is so gleeful. Timber Lake’s latest is so hogtied by thematic weightiness and stylistic flourishes that its final minutes are the performers’ first and only chances to really let loose.

Kelsey Andres and Erica Vlahinos in Children of EdenI’ll do my best to describe this particular Children of Eden’s structure. Please forgive me if I fail. The production starts with a wordless prelude in which an obviously frustrated man (Brandon Ford) reprimands a boy (Levi Skoog) who we presume is his son. This kid, listed in the program as “The Creator,” is sent to his room, where he begins to compose an essay on, fittingly, the world’s creation. Through dance and interpretive movement, with Children of Eden’s ensemble portraying animals and birds and such, we’re witness to the beginnings of life on earth, culminating in the arrival of Adam (Patrick Connaghan) and Eve (Erica Vlahinos). It’s at this point that the boy enters his own essay as God – referred to here as “Father” – and warns his human creations that they are not to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, despite Eve’s intense fascination with the tree. (Adam, for his part, remains contentedly obtuse.)

Father leaves but returns a few scenes later, this time in the form of the boy’s father. (Throughout the production, Ford will play both dad to the kid and Dad to Us All, and you can tell the characters apart because his father in the Old Testament scenes shows off more chest hair.) But the boy – that is, The Creator – doesn’t altogether vanish. While the Adam and Eve saga plays out, followed by the first act’s introduction of Cain (Tyler Sawyer Smith) and Abel (Grant Drager), he’ll occasionally be seen in his bedroom, working on his essay or drawing pictures or tearing them up in fits of rage. Then, after the killing of Abel – as presented here, the accidental killing of Abel – the cast unites on-stage, and through photographs and film footage, we’re shown how the man’s death irrefutably led to world wars, mass genocide, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. And that’s Act I.

Act II is more straightforward ... at first. Now we’re in the boy’s classroom, where the students decide to act out the tale of Noah’s Ark, giving the show’s ensemble another opportunity to act out (or rather, dance out) a number of ill-specified animals. This conceit – with, oddly, Timber Lake’s adult actors playing grade- or middle-schoolers alongside actual grade- or middle-schoolers – is sustained as Noah (Aaron Conklin), his wife (Brown), and their sons and daughters-in-law prepare the ark and try to keep youngest son Japheth (Henry McGinniss) from his Cain-descended love, the servant girl Yonah (Daryn Harrell). But just as the characters reach the 40th day of their 40 days and 40 nights aboard the ark, the students’ classroom is – apparently – hit by a bomb, and the students are buried beneath the rubble. (Nathan Dahlkemper’s scenic design here strongly, and tastelessly, suggests the debris from Manhattan’s ground zero.) With the students continuing their Noah’s Ark tale from below, and the actors in the earlier Genesis stories now playing rescuers searching for bodies, the narratives converge when The Creator’s father, i.e. Father, shows up, and ... .

ensemble members in Children of EdenOkay, that’s all I can take. What the hell is going on here? Why has Children of Eden been made so complicated? Don’t its Bible stories have enough to teach us about faith and family and responsibility without dragging dual God figures and 9/11 into the mix? There was plenty that drove me batty about the production: the forced symbolism of the child’s globe; the first act’s visually blah, earth-toned wardrobe selections; the confounding Act II conceit that found Skoog briefly mouthing a song's lyrics to Ford's vocals, and then to the chorus' vocals, and then not mouthing any lyrics whatsoever; the ramp to the ark that was suspended center-stage (within the set design) for more than two hours and then, when finally lowered, never once walked on. But if pressed, I’d say the complete confusion about narrative and tone was what rankled me most; the show was sung awfully well, but given the incoherence of the presentation, not even the most impressive of the musical’s performers – among them Vlahinos, Connaghan, Drager, Harrell, and the women playing the Garden of Eden’s slinky serpent – seemed able to fully connect with their characters. How could they?

Thank God, then, for that exuberant curtain call, and for Brown’s divinely happy and supremely soulful “Ain’t It Good” number that preceded it. It would’ve been preferable, of course, if her glorious wailing wasn’t accompanied by the sight of the students – a lot of students – being lifted to freedom one by one; by the song’s end, I was less moved by Brown’s show-saving performance than concerned for the arms of the two guys doing all that hauling. At this Children of Eden, though, you take your rare moments of grace wherever you can, and for a few blessed minutes, Sophie Brown delivers as much honest, knockout grace as you could ever want. Amen.


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Comments (7)Add Comment
For the love of Pete!
written by Tanya Richardson, August 02, 2011
Mr. Schulz, in your review you mention that you dutifully attended Sunday school. I too attended Sunday school and I feel that you have perhaps missed out on some key lessons. For instance, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Perhaps I could give you a quick lesson, albeit without the sugar cookies and fruit punch that a Sunday schoolteacher normally has with her lessons.
I have been a patron of TLP for some years now. My sister and I attended the opening night of Children of Eden. You may have seen us? We were the women that were emotionally moved at intermission, though I doubt that narrows anything down as that anyone with a heart was most certainly moved.
I will admit that this Production was not a retelling of the book of Genesis, and THANK GOODNESS! Isn’t that what we have Church for? I mean if I am going to pay for a ticket to a show I better get a little more than some old man with good articulation passing out free crackers and grape juice. I mean for Pete’s sake, just because you didn’t like a concept doesn’t mean that it’s bad. There is a difference.
I bet you didn’t like everything your Mamma ever cooked you, but I bet you never called her a bad mother. (At least not without a whooping’!) You should be ashamed at focusing all your time and energy on what you didn’t like. You sure did beat that horse dead. We got it loud and clear, you did not like the concept or design. You said that those kids were “ill-specified animals”, well if I wanted to see a girl on stilts trying to act like a giraffe, I’d go buy some tickets to the Des Moines Civic center to see the Lion King.
What you seemed to miss was a beautiful ensemble of talented young actors who came together to tell us a story as old as time it self. These kids are the best around and they have been gracious enough to share their gifts with some of us out here in the woods. My sister and I were both moved by so many of these young performers that you seemed to pay no mind. It’s a miracle that our local theaters exist with reviews like this.
The one thing your review certainly misses is the stunning performances each actor gave on that stage. I think you did everyone a disservice by skimming over the performance so you could show how much you know about symbolism. Well I may not be a musical critic but I can tell if something makes me laugh, or cry, or question things about my life. This show did it all.
We obviously had two very different experiences that night. You seemed to be overwhelmed and confused by the concept and designs- while the massive talent impressed me. And just for the record. I took my sister and her daughter out to lunch after Church this past Sunday, and we were discussing the show. She seemed to understand the story and concept just fine.


Tanya Richardson

written by jami smith, August 02, 2011
This review is the worst. I can't believe I attended the same show! This show is the best thing I've ever seen--including the last 3 seasons at Circa 21 and Clinton Showboat. I want to see it again and again.

To review the "review", I think Mr. Schulz must have been going through a personal crisis that day. I also have no desire to see the normally rather drab production of Children of Eden and was absolutely delighted with James Beaudry's interpretation. I was moved to tears 3 times--something I've never experienced.

Run! Do not walk to your phone to get tickets to this show. Order them now like everyone else is who has heard the incredible buzz about it.

Shame on YOU, Mr. Schulz...your review is sinful.
written by Gene Smith, August 02, 2011
I too have to agree with the previous comments.Mr. Shultz were you on crack>? Iwas there opening night and while biblical plays are not usualy my favorites,this play moved me.Quite probably because it did move away from the old standard story we're all so familiar with.This play was one of the best i've seen for awhile.I can only hope there was a reason for your gastly review of this magnificent production by TLP and company.I think they deserve a lot of credit for giving us a new look at an old favorite.As for Mr. Shultz,maybe you should go back to Play Review 101 and learn some manners. Shame on you.
In Poor Taste
written by Ben Reilly, August 03, 2011
The previous three commenters obviously do not understand that a review is an opinion and peoples' opinions differ. It's okay for one person to like something and another not to like it. Tanya, Jami and Gene - just because you were moved by this play does not mean every single person in the world is going to be moved by it in the same way nor see it in the same way. And, because Mr. Schulz wouldn't agree with your OPINION does not mean he's worthy of your tongue-lashing. Or would this be keyboard-lashing?

Tanya starts by saying Mr. Schulz should remember his Sunday School lessons, particularly "if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all." By the way, that's not in the Bible. Tanya then goes on to not have anything nice to say about Mr. Schulz, attacking him personally for doing his job, sharing his personal opinion of the show.

These comments are offensive because they demand that others have the exact same view and opinion as do those writing them. What a boring world that would be! Shame on the three of you for saying shame on Mr. Schulz for thinking, examining, and expecting more from a theater he's raved about in every other review he's written for their shows this summer!
written by jami, August 03, 2011
The reason for the keyboard lashing is that Mr Schulz could discourage others from seeing this fantastic show with an uber-negative review the show does not deserve. We, like any critic, also have a right to our opinion and cringe inside to think Mr Schulz' crushing review would be the last word.
written by Mayo, August 04, 2011
How DARE you!!!!!!!
written by BK, August 06, 2011
I'm laughing at those that seem offended by the review.What's wrong with you? I read the review and was curious as to what I would think of the play when I attended. I loved it and have told others I found it very entertaining and that's the reason I go to plays. Why do people think that others don't have their own minds and would just go on one persons review? Just asking.As much as I enjoyed this play , I certainly don't think it was the best play I have seen this season on the Showboat, Circa 21, TLP ect.. This play does ooze a lot of talent. I hope I don't get a tongue lashing now. If you don't want an opinion , don't look at the reviews,by the way.

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