New collage show "Shoulder to the Wheel" explores American experience
The greatest strength of anthologies is also often their greatest weakness: they expose you to a broad array of voices and perspectives, which is valuable; yet because the pieces are disparate, it’s difficult to both establish a consistent level of quality and make the pieces fit together into a meaningful whole.
Director Lyndsay Michalik jumped at the chance to take on these challenges, though, compiling “Shoulder to the Wheel” — a new, original collage show that showcases more than 15 people’s artistic response to the notion of "the American experience."
The show has a little bit of everything: dance, visual art come-to-life, poetry, narrated genre pieces, scenes, monologues (often delivered to an on-stage laptop), physical comedy, film/video, and rants.
After watching Wednesday night’s final dress rehearsal, I can report that the show’s very best moments are, indeed, arresting. In one scene, a quartet of actors deliver perspectives on wartime. One woman (Emily Tipton) talks about what she sends in care packages to the troops; a young service man (Matthew Andersen) talks about what he misses and longs for back home; an old veteran (Andy Orscheln) takes a circuitous route down memory lane, courtesy of Werther’s Originals; and a man currently serving (Lorenzo Toia), whose divorce is being finalized, talks about why he stays in combat.
The scene’s well-written, but it’s also well-staged by Michalik (affectingly lit by Michael Williams, too) and well-acted. Toia, in particular, provides one of the evening’s finest moments as the scene’s emotional anchor, explaining one soldier’s view of the world with clear-eyed, no-fuss candor.
Another highlight is Jamie Weeder’s powerful rendering of a monologue that examines the regret a woman feels at not doing more to help the people of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Plus, a darkly comedic piece about a homicidal pizza delivery man is absurdly strange but transfixing; soldier figurines delightfully, stiffly come to life as part of a woman’s rant about war; Brian Carbine’s choreography (and the actors’ execution of it) for “It’s Raining Men” can’t help but make you smile; and hearing from the couple featured in the painting “American Gothic” is both a whimsical and a quietly heart-wrenching experience.
Yet with a running time of nearly two and a half hours, “Shoulder” feels weighed down by too much material — a problem compounded by the sense that not every contribution earns its place in the show. After a while, I lost my excitedly curious sense of “What’s coming next?” and instead wondered, “How will this stop?”
Michalik and her cast have clearly worked hard to make this mosaic of a show work as a piece, and their solutions to its challenges are often creative — but they don’t always work. For instance, using excerpts of a running dialogue between Weeder and Analea Lessenberry for scene transitions feels too self-conscious, and the writing loses impact by way of this fragmentation.
The show’s set, however, fittingly plays upon the “constructed” nature of the play (which was inspired by Charles Mee’s “Under Construction,” not coincidentally), using orange cones, hard hats, road blocks, and caution tape, reminding watchers — in a literal way — that the show is something built from the ground up.
Similarly, Michalik’s thoughtfully meticulous sound design, and Barbara Michalik and Kelley Stonebraker’s heroic prop work, keep this ambitious show afloat technically.
Some interesting echoes are heard among “Shoulder”’s multiple voices, one of them being that the distance between Americans’ actions and words is often broad (a driver describes himself as “aggressively courteous” on the road while raging at other drivers; the family in Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” provoke each other before assuming their famous positions for posterity).
But the problem with hearing so many different voices is that, after a certain saturation point, they start to drown each other out, making editing choices absolutely crucial in a show like “Shoulder.” And while the show could have achieved more with less, there’s no arguing that it’s an unconventional and thought-provoking night of theater.