I’d generally consider myself an escapist when it comes to theater. I like to laugh, learn, be thrilled and occasionally fall in love when I attend a production. Given a choice, I don’t often voluntarily seek out the more dramatic shows that are apt to make one cry. Yes, my ideal expectations associated with theater-going tend to sit comfortably in the realm of “happy” theater, yet I find on the occasions when I am moved, saddened or angered by a production’s content, the experience is surprisingly enjoyable. This was certainly the case with Hillbarn Theater’s production of John & Jen; a lesser done, two-person musical that tackles heartbreak amongst other darker, less Princessy issues, with aplomb.
The flow of this show reminds me a lot of a Paul Simon song, not so much in style but in structure. Much of it is sung conversation and cathartic stream of consciousness with the occasional gift of a beautiful melody that opens you up in ways that only music really can. Sometimes syncopated and sometimes consisting of unique harmonies that concern themselves more with communicating an emotion than pleasing your ear perhaps, it’s complex music, at least to my minimally ear. It’s sung technically very well with heaps of expression, but it’s slightly more of an acquired taste for the layman I think. There are beautiful notes to be sure, both quiet and belted, but it’s easy to see why the music alone hasn’t sold this show to the masses. Like poetry, there’s a real subtlety to this music overall that I think can be difficult to take in during your initial exposure. But, like a great painting, you might not think you “like” it or be able to articulate why you like it, but you’re none-the-less moved by it. It helps that the actor and actress are skilled at singing expressively and that the small band (featuring a cello, which I loved) are nothing less than perfect.
The challenges of time passage were addressed with a minimalist, but complete approach to set, props and costumes. I never felt the actors were rushed or had to start a scene before they were ready despite the transitions from scene to scene clipping along quite quickly with almost all the action taking place in the songs rather than broken up with dialogue.
This play will hit home for many and could hit particularly hard for a certain segment of the audience who’ve gone through similar experiences to John and Jen in their own life. Without revealing too much, I will say, as a warning, the process of recovering from a death is central to the show and so you should be aware the shows emotional toll on you is virtually inescapable (even for tough monarch-types.) Perhaps the most fascinating thing about how this show is written and performed, is how an audience member with very little (if any) point of reference and ability to empathize with these characters, can be pulled in a made to feel like she can.
Not your happy romantic comedy for sure, but worth the just over 90 minute visit. Skip the mascara (unless you like sporting the raccoon-chic look) and pack a tissue or two as well for the ride. 4 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a sentimental and turbulent, personal journey, freshly and professionally presented. John and Jen plays through April, 7th at the Hillbarn Theatre.