At the opening of John Crutchfield‘s one-man show, The Songs of Robert, when it was just the empty stage and Crutchfield with a grocery cart full of ephemera portraying an arthritic bluesman with a thick accent, I must admit I thought, “Oh no.”
One-person plays can be hard. So can dialects. So can lines spoken in verse. And character sketches. Robert has all of that, and (Chall Gray — owner of The Magnetic Field where Robert currently runs — told me this) Crutchfield and producers keep removing pieces of the already bare bones set because with less, Crutchfield is able to do more. While the character of the blues man is actually an important and ultimately likable one — rather a sage guide through the play — it was after his first appearance that I began to get the play and relax into story as it unfolded.
From the blues man, Crutchfield shape shifted (you know how in hokey movies, the drama coach announces “happy” with an exaggerated grin and then slides a hand over his face, resurfacing with an exaggerated frown, announcing “sad”? — it’s kind of like that, but without the hoke factor) into a John Deere cap-wearing banjo-playing father. NASCAR is not mention, but it’s likely that this character (Robert’s dad) is a racing fan. There’s also, in fairly rapid succession, a literature teacher in pearls, a gym coach with a whistle and a high school stoner.
Each character tells a piece of the story of Robert. Actually, it’s not much of a story. Robert is a boy trying to work up the nerve to ask a particular girl to the prom. That’s it. And, in a way, the sheer simplicity is what makes Robert brilliant. (That, and that Crutchfield can write such a play and perform all the characters and play the music on both guitar and banjo and write poetry and memorize 90 minutes-worth of lines. Oh, and dance. And rap. And probably bake a perfect souffle and run a six-minute mile, though those last two talents are not revealed in Robert.) The story line is little more than a canvas, allowing the play’s multitude of characters to tell their own stories by way of telling Robert’s.
The coach, who begins most of sentences, “Men!” and slowly lets on a surprisingly liberal attitude toward those different from us, is a highlight of the play. So is Robert’s Latino guardian angel. Crutchfield morphs from one to the next in smooth gestures and quick-changes of postures and accents. But it’s more than dialects and the addition of a hat or backpack or a slide guitar. His entire presence seems to shift, as if a ghost either takes over or leaves his body, or he wakes to the finger snap of a hypnotist.
Some of the characters are deep wells of philosophy: “You best see that your soul is round and bouncy,” the coach says, proffering a basketball. Others — a cheerleader with pom-poms and an esoteric chant, and Robert’s sister, who does rapid-fire leg-lifts while talking on the phone — are almost sheer entertainment. When Crutchfield slides on a sideways ball cap and shows his bling (an oversized duck pendant on a thick chain) while rapping, I found myself wondering if he was just seeing what he was capable of, how far he could push his character sketches.
Robert nearly bubbles over with hilarity and raw ache; its desire to make a statement about the brilliant moments rooted like sleeping seeds within the monotony of life is palpable. And yet there’s no excess, no fluff. Even the cheerleader, even the pissed-off bus driver, even the idle talk of cars (“The engine purring like a panther”) hits like a punch to the gut. In a good way. In a way that leaves the audience wanting another.
The Songs of Robert runs for one more week at The Magnetic Field. Thursday, March 31 and Friday, April 1 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, April 2 at 7:30 and 10 p.m. $12 and $14. Buy tickets here.