Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Year of the Bicycle
One child is black (Eric J. Connors as Andile), the other white (Magan Wiles as Amelia), and both are played by adult actors. But their shared "inner world" is ultimately stronger than any grown-up's version of the post-Apartheid nation. Philip Boehm directs with the lighter-than-air touch that has defined Upstream Theater's reign as a premiere local troupe.
One mystery gradually seems to fade away as another develops on stage: first, why are the two children stacked on a rolling cartAmelia on the top and Andile on the lower shelf: her, splayed awkwardly above; and him, huddled into a little ball below. It's a great bas-relief of modern race relations in South Africa, though the topic is only touched upon, like braille.
And, second, what's the meaning of a doll that appears at mid-point, a "little brother" for Amelia? Call me dense, but I didn't quite grasp what was going on till 15 minutes later, when its changing meaning finally burst on my mind like a distant explosion. Like any worthwhile modern art, Ms. Evans' play does most of its work in your head.
But it's not just symbolism, though The Year of the Bicycle operates at a very high level of visual poetry, like a classic short story where everything means something else. It mainly delves into the exuberant friendship of the two 8-year-olds. Ms. Wiles can barely keep from bouncing off the walls in her delightful turn, while Mr. Connors gently beseeches the grown-up world for reason, in a touching, humbling and disarming characterization.
But there's the growing implication of an underlying life-or-death struggle: Ms. Wiles flashes-back to a moment of flying down a hill on her bike, which now hangs sideways up in the grid, while other isolated pieces are set at the corners of the stage. Occasional hospital noises, lovely delicate bike sounds, and musical skeins shade our consciousness like elements of an unseen world, thanks to musician David A. N. Jackson.
Things get complicated when grown-ups (or older brothers) intercede, but the two characters become so well connected that they share one of those mysterious, crisis-based psychic links, which "pings" in the background like a heart monitor in the climactic moments. It's all very rewarding: socially complex, and psychologically lyrical, under a cleverly simple façade. Your heart and your mind may watch separately, only to gradually reconcile in the end.
All that, in barely an hour!
Through February 12, 2017, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand (between SLU and the Fox Theatre). For more information visit www.upstreamtheater.org. Some free parking is usually available on nearby Lindell Blvd. after seven p.m. (but not long after seven p.m.).
Soundscape: David A. N. Jackson
* Member, Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers
** Member, United Scenic Artists Local 829
*** Equity Membership Candidate