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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Yellow Boat
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Storefront Church, Disney in Concert: Tale as Old as Time, and Photograph 51

Kyle Sorrell, Rudy Ramirez, and Katie McFadzen
Photo by Tim Trumble
A play about death seems an odd choice for a theatrical offering aimed at children, yet David Saar's The Yellow Boat is just as much about living as it is about dying. Based on the true story of Saar's son Benjamin, a hemophiliac who died in 1987 of AIDS-related complications after receiving a tainted blood transfusion, it also makes for an engaging and emotionally rich journey. In the twenty-five years since Childsplay first premiered the piece back in 1992, Saar's play has gone on to be presented around the country. In honor of Childsplay's 40th anniversary and Saar's retirement as the company's Artistic Director last season, the company presents a new production of the beautiful and moving work with an incredibly gifted cast performing a celebration of this young boy's short life.

Saar uses a Scandinavian folk song that his wife, who was born in Norway, would tell Benjamin as the basis for the title of the play. That tale is a story of three boats, "One was blue, one was red and one was yellow as the sun. They sailed far out to sea. The blue one returned to the harbor. The red one sailed home, too. But the yellow boat sailed up to the sun." Benjamin would tell his parents that he was the yellow boat which he says represents love. The imagery of those boats, and their colors, is used throughout this play, which is told from Benjamin's perspective and begins when he was born and follows him until his death at eight.

Benjamin likes to draw and his artwork and the many colors he uses are interwoven throughout the piece in Carey Wong's multi-functional set pieces and inventive prop pieces, William Kirkham's impressive lighting, and Kish Finnegan's colorful costumes. These elements, along with the always present yellow boat—which is used first as the vessel in the folk song and later Benjamin's hospital bed—celebrates Benjamin's creative spirit and passion.

Sarr's script is frank but also funny and filled with truthful conversations and natural dialogue that steep the play in realism. While it does deal with death head-on, it never becomes morbid, but instead poses the questions children, and adults, often ask about dying in an intelligent way. It also presents issues that arise when someone has a disease that people around them don't fully understand and how these issues can find the individual alienated from their friends.

The cast features seven talented actors who have appeared in numerous Childsplay shows. Rudy Ramirez is completely convincing as the bright and energetic young boy who is full of creativity and a lust for life but ultimately finds himself sick and depressed. Ramirez handles the transformation from healthy to ill seamlessly. When Benjamin realizes that he is going to die, Ramirez's straightforward yet measured delivery of the questions "Will it hurt?" and "Will you put me in a box?" to his parents is simply heartbreaking.

Katie McFadzen and Kyle Sorrell portray Benjamin's parents with the appropriate emotions one would expect parents of a suffering child feel. First we see the joy and love they have for this baby, but then we see the fears and concerns they exhibit when Benjamin becomes ill. Both actors never lose sight of the pride their characters have for their son. Debra K. Stevens is radiant as Joy, the hospital's child life specialist who helps Benjamin better understand what is happening to him, and Michael Thompson is perfect as Benjamin's best friend Eddy who abandons him when he first becomes ill but later comes to visit him in the hospital, filled with appropriate layers of nervousness and humor. Osiris Cuen and Thomas Strawser play several smaller parts with ease.

Director Dwayne Hartford doesn't make one false move in ensuring the realistic tone and characters are treated with respect. In addition to the wonderful and inventive creative elements, the original music by Alan Ruch and Chris Neumeyer's sound design create an ever-changing soundscape that adds many impressive moments.

The Yellow Boat is complex, sincere, funny, creative, witty and sad, yet also full of hope. While it is a heartbreaking story, it is a emotionally rich journey well worth taking.

The Yellow Boat at Childsplay runs through March 12th, 2017, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe, with performances on Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. Tickets are on sale at or at the Tempe Center for the Arts Box Office (480) 350-2822 (ext. 0).

Written by David Saar
Directed: Dwayne Hartford
Original Music: Alan Ruch
Scenic Design: Carey Wong
Costume Design: Kish Finnegan
Lighting Design: William Kirkham
Sound Design: Chris Neumeyer
Stage Manager: Sarah G. Chanis

Benjamin: Rudy Ramirez
Mother: Katie McFadzen
Father: Kyle Sorrell
Joy / Ensemble: Debra K. Stevens
Eddy / Ensemble: Michael Thompson
Ensemble: Osiris Cuen, Thomas Strawser

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