I’d like to preface this review with a personal note: it’s delightful to be able to review theatre again! I did so previously under the umbrella of PHX Stages, but once COVID hit, shows to review have been scarce. While I do keep a critical eye on works that I review, I am so pleased to see theatre artists coming up with creative solutions to performing while keeping their cast and crew safe during these times. Adapting shows meant for the stage into any other medium are always going to be a challenge, and they’re not always going to feel the same as live theatre (nothing really does, does it?), but it’s absolutely, positively always worth trying.
Daniel Pearle’s A Kid Like Jake explores parenting through a modern day lens, tackling subjects like gender identity, the pressures on early childhood achievement, and mental health for both kids and adults, and B3 Theater‘s production does so largely with success. Translating a play into a video format is no easy task, and while there were some technical moments that may distract, the essence of the play comes through clearly, and that essence centers around the difficulty of giving truly unconditional love.
A Kid Like Jake follows parents Alex and Greg as they struggle to jump through the many, many hoops of getting their child, Jake, into a quality private school for his first year of Kindergarten. Judy, who has a soft spot for Jake, is helping them get their son into a good school, but she has concerns that Jake’s gender identity might not be as straightforward as Alex and Greg want to believe. This sows a deep division between Alex and Greg, bringing their own insecurities and deep-seated issues to the forefront. The play’s premise is solid, and the moments of tension between the characters read authentically, but oftentimes I found my mind wandering as the arguments seemed to be the only driving factors through certain scenes. There were few moments of lightness to balance the resentment and anger, and the play’s resolution felt somewhat incomplete, particularly Alex’s change of heart. Discussing trans issues, especially those regarding children, takes a delicate hand, especially in the current climate rife with anti-trans bills specifically directed at regulating children’s transitions. Pearle’s script addresses this from a very human perspective and doesn’t step too far into the line of preaching to the audience or claiming that there is one right way to parent a trans child, but centers on the subject of unconditional love. It does take some time to get to this in so many words, and the discussion quickly becomes less about the child and more about the adults, but the heart of it is there. Jake only has a handful of lines in the whole show, and only in a dream sequence, so Judy easily became the most sympathetic character as she seemed to be the only real advocate for Jake.
Jennifer Lee White brings a maternal bite to Alex’s character, and she and James Olsen, playing Greg, both shone in the more heated moments of the show. Their portrayal of troubled parents ring true, though some more moments of softness would have elevated the characters’ chemistry. For a relationship filmed separately, however, they presented a believable marriage, albeit a troubled one. Madison Desoto brings a much-needed heart and soul to the play in the role of Judy, allowing the audience to have at least some faith in the adults in Jake’s life. She shows clear passion in her role, and it translates wonderfully through the camera. Alexandra Palmatier as Nurse adds a lively energy to the cast, equal parts gentle and distant as the role calls for.
Direction by Jean-Paoul C Clemente, assisted by Angel Berumen, brings together a cohesive style to this virtual play, and within the confines of the medium, it’s largely effective. Adapting a play to a video medium is a difficult task in any case, and the shortcomings of the medium do prove to be a challenge that can take away from the general experience at times. Actors directed to look to their right and left while acting are positioned on the screen so that they looked to be staring offscreen rather than at each other, but this doesn’t take too much away from the overall experience. Virtual and Video Creative and Design by Micky Small seeks to tie together the essence of the play within the constraints of the medium, and though I mentioned some of the shortcomings above, it was rather successful. The simple color schemes and playful shapes echoed the childlike settings of the locations visited in the play, and the B roll between scenes helps a great deal in leading the audience to each destination with the characters. The layout occasionally distracts from the story, but only on a few occasions. Sound by Chris Caracciolo tends more toward the distracting side, dialogue sometimes fluctuates in volume so that it’s difficult to clearly understand the actors, and the volume of the music in transitions is jarring at times.
Overall, the essence of the play does indeed shine through, regardless of the medium. A Kid Like Jake tackles subjects that certainly deserve the spotlight in today’s climate, and within the confines of a video production, the cast and crew deliver that message.