June 26, 2008 performance reviewed by Edward McDonnell.
There are wonderful things inside Chris Van Allsburg’s head. Originally trained as a sculptor, he began illustrating and writing books. Since the 1979 release of The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, he has created fifteen others, including Jumanji, Ben’s Dream, The Wreck of the Zephyr, and The Polar Express. He has received numerous awards, including the Caldecott Honor Medal and the National Book Award.
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick appeared in 1984. It consists of fourteen different drawings – moody, compelling, disturbing, shadowy – well, you decide: as countless middle school students and teachers can tell you, The Solutions of the Harris Burdicks are to be found inside the beholder’s head. The story goes: a man named Harris Burdicks brought these drawings to a publisher, then promised to return the following day with the stories that accompany them. He never came back. He was never seen again.
As presented in the Barrington Stage Company production, under the direction of Joe Calarco, these beguiling puzzles seize and hold the audience immediately. The pictures are brought to light one at a time along with fragments of stories spoken and sung by neighborhood residents. The first is that of an empty, massive hulk of a house and the night the light in the top floor went on. The mood is lightly suspenseful, foreboding, with music to match. There is no “horror” in the picture or the story; more of a campfire tone. Halloween is even mentioned.
Then the house flies away.
With the introduction of a supernatural element into what had been merely the beginnings of a shivery atmosphere, the play begins to move.
A boy skipping stones into a pond stands wondering as the pond skips a stone back to him.
A boy meets a wonderful girl and they raise a child, a wonderful happy boy named Archie.
Then, while the innocuous piano continues throughout, and we begin to feel acquainted with the decent but unremarkable side of these lives, the real horror comes, quietly, in the daytime, as real horror can when it wants to: just as we begin to know his uniqueness and childish zest for life, twelve-year-old Archie disappears.
In the neighborhood there is regret, suspicion, unspeakable pain.
The father of Archie’s playmate, overcome with paranoia and obsessively protective, lashes out at others, condemns himself.
We all eyeball the furtive loner, even as we enjoy his quirky song about the exterminator life.
There is a poignant scene where Molly, the little girl who knew Archie, plays with caterpillars alone and notes that “nobody smiles anymore.”
In scenes that follow, we have some hope for Archie, we watch some developments that bring up more mysteries, and reality continues to stretch, open and close. As whimsical and fantastic unfold alongside aching tragedy, a primary question might be, “Maurice Sendak meets Ted Bundy? Can they do this? Is this going to work?”
Suffice it to say that director Calarco, working at a perfect pace to maintain and intensify curiosity and allowing us to trust this peculiar material, does succeed.
His actors are all effective, individually and (more important) as a tight team. If there were a standout it might be Catherine Porter as the mother wrestling with the greatest loss imaginable, or Romain Fruge as the father who responds to it with emptiness.
Burdick is a one of a kind experience and very well worthwhile.
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick was developed in the BSC workshop a year ago.