Amanda Campbell reviews Uncle Oscar’s Experiment in her blog TWISI: Theatre Blog. Read “Uncle Oscar’s Experiment: 10 years later & still defying death” below or on TWISI.
The 10th Anniversary production of Zuppa Theatre’s Uncle Oscar’s Experiment is an imaginative and delightful Expressionistic exploration of the traditions of the Grand Guignol and solidifies theatrically and musically as a dark and twisted, yet jubilant, fairy tale for adults.
Uncle Oscar’s Experiment tells the story of poor Felicity Luckless, the little girl followed by death, who comes into the care of Dr. Oscar Smitthison-Burke, a mad-scientist, intent on curing her of this curse. He is aided by his shy and awkward henchman, Gregory, who has never seen a girl before and is quite intrigued by his new housemate. Can Felicity overcome her power for accidentally murdering people haphazardly? Will Gregory have to choose between the love of a girl and his loyalty to his master? What insight does the angel have to impart on Felicity first? The Zuppa collective has woven this story together using aspects of clown, melodrama, physical theatre, magic and dance, with original music fully integrated into the world of the play, led by Jason Michael MacIsaac and David Christensen. Together, the elements capture an ardent sense of play and the magic inherent in pretend.
Kiersten Tough oscillates between vulnerable dejection and guarded exuberance as young Felicity Luckless, capturing the sense of the lost and sometimes terrified child trying to cope beneath her strange affliction. She is countered beautifully by Ben Stone’s Gregory, whose vulnerability is even rawer than Felicity’s. Together they manage to be both hilariously funny and then immediately heart rending. Susan Leblanc is visually stunning and alluring as the mysterious angel and her exuberance while coaxing Felicity to follow her nicely mirrors Tough’s. Stewart Legere is earnest, yet progressively unsettling, as “Uncle” Oscar. Together, with MacIsaac and Christensen, the cast works together creatively to keep the momentum of the play turning in unexpected and entertaining ways.
Much of what firmly roots Uncle Oscar’s Experiment in its distinct world, somewhere between us and the stars, is MacIsaac’s original score with jaunty guitar and banjos and a lilting accordion to create a beautiful juxtaposition between the play’s inherent celebration of the blithe magic of storytelling and make believe and the grim fates that befell our characters. Alex McLean has expertly choreographed these musical numbers in a way that is a fun pastiche of styles: sometimes reminiscent of Peanuts characters, sometimes channelling the Broadway musical and at one point with a tilt of the hat to Thriller. As in a dream, these characters exist in a fluid state of extended and unlimited possibility because they are alive in play.
It is the playful and the inventive use of objects- guitar cases and accordions and beds with wheels- and the cast’s crisp, specific gestures that are the cornerstone to McLean’s visual concept for Uncle Oscar’s Experiment. This is also reminiscent to children “playing pretend” or actors improvising a scene and mixing freely the elements from different theatrical styles and historical contexts with wild abandon. The result is akin to Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas only far more immediate and joyful.
Come check out Uncle Oscar’s Experiment before death comes- singing and dancing- to find you. It’s a great way to celebrate the advent of Halloween.