Charming HELVETICA Tells A Writer's Story From the Story's Perspective

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Katie Palazzola and Kelvin Urday in Tesseract Theatre's production of HELVETICA. Photo Credit: Jackie Zigler.

I never got into film and theatre criticism because I like to second-guess the artistic vision of a director or debate the relative merits of a given lead in a musical. I have my opinions, sure, but it’s a deeper passion that drives me to rush from a 50-hours a week day job to theatres all over town, and whether it’s serenely sung or admirably acted, for me it always comes down to the story. The story is everything. If you don’t have a strong, compelling story to tell, no matter how intricate or simple the plot, you won’t have an audience for very long. HELVETICA, a new play by Will Coleman, should have an audience for years to come. Unfortunately, the Tesseract Theatre is only running their delightful program from April 1- April 10 in the Regional Arts Commission Building in the Delmar Loop.

HELVETICA is the story of a woman who writes stories for children. Her life is narrated by her beloved stuffed bear Myron, played by Kelvin Urday. Helvetica—yes, named after the famous word processing font—is played by three talented actresses: Ashley Netzhammer as young Past Helvetica, Katie Palazzola as the professional Present Helvetica and Michelle Dillard as the Future Helvetica, more fragile and afraid that she doesn’t have anything left to say. Maurice Walters II plays Present Helvetica’s husband, while Andrew Rea and Julianne King play a variety of roles: Past Helvetica’s parents, Present Helvetica’s illustrator (King) and Future Helvetica’s doctor and agent (Rea) among others.

The cast is outstanding, top to bottom. Kelvin Urday delivered his lines with a child-like innocence that you might expect from your own favorite plush toy, assuming yours wasn’t a Teddy Ruxpin. He was warm, eager, and at times laugh-out-loud funny when he’d chime in on a conversation and only Helvetica and the audience could hear his comments. I found myself thinking, “This is what Calvin and Hobbes would be if it was a stage play.” Ashley Netzhammer was wonderful as the embodiment of the innocence of youth, trying and failing to come to grips with her Mother’s downward spiral of depression and cancer (given context and depth by Julianne King’s fine performance), as her Father searches for a way to explain the inevitability of death to his child. I recalled long-ago conversations about death I had with my own father at a young age, and I’m still not sure I have a satisfactory answer. Will Coleman’s script and the interplay of Ashley, Andrew and Kelvin captured that moment brilliantly and truthfully while hinting that Father’s encouragement of her imagination gave Helvetica the skills she would eventually use to carve out a career most of us writers only dream of. Katie Palazzola brought that cynical adult attitude that so often works to our disadvantage, hiding the shy girl Helvetica once was and essentially still is under a thick patina of failed relationships and aspirations. Katie and Maurice showed good chemistry with believable banter. Katie probably has the biggest single moment in the production, telling a lengthy story of a wind-up toy dancer with such an enchanting grace that made me wish the lengthy monologue had been longer still. If any local productions are looking for a Scheherazade, Katie would be a great choice. Michelle Dillard, as the embodiment of Helvetica’s twilight years, gave her a grace and wisdom that I can but hope for in my own late life.

The set is rather simple, which helps to keep the focus squarely on the actors, who go a full 90 minutes without an intermission. Artistic Director Taylor Gruenloh, Managing Director Brittanie Gunn and Executive Director Steve Baer have put together an engaging show and are ahead of the curve on bringing HELVETICA to the region. The St. Louis theatre scene is doing some truly exciting stories all over town, and HELVETICA is no exception. Check out www.tesseracttheatre.org for more information about HELVETICA and the Tesseract Theatre. Please be aware—Delmar Boulevard is a tricky stretch to navigate at the best of times, and road construction mixed with traffic accidents can bring that part of town to a standstill in a hurry. With the variety of dining options in The Loop, plan on getting there early and make an evening out of it, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself dusting off your own oft-forgotten Myron when you get home.

Grade: 
4.5 / 5.0