The stock characters: Reviewing ‘Trouble in Mind’ and ‘The Fantasticks’

Zach Barr, Theater Columnist

It’s rare, especially in this day and age, that we hear a story that is truly simple. A character moves from stasis into conflict, goes through trials to overcome the conflict and eventually overcomes the conflict. Nowadays, audiences almost expect a story to be incredibly complicated, as it’s a mark of quality over the simpler stories. Why just tell the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk?” I want to know what Jack’s relationship with his mother was. Who really was the man who gave him the beans? What are the ethical problems behind killing a giant? These things better be addressed, or the story isn’t good enough.

How refreshing, then, to find a play like the Wirtz Center’s “Trouble in Mind,” where the central conflict is very clearly racism.

Or the trials of representation.

Or differences in income.

Or conflict between upbringing.

OK, “Trouble in Mind” is actually very complicated. But, to refresh from that, WAVE Productions’ “The Fantasticks” is more about young love.

Or expectations.

Or free will.

Or proving yourself.

“Trouble in Mind,” Alice Childress’ 1955 play, involves an actress in 1950s New York attempting to make a living. But when she is cast in yet another role playing a stereotype of her race, she must wrestle with the conflict of whether she will stay silent and evoke sympathy from the audience or leave the production and not support the insensitive portrayal. The other actors — save one white boy and one white girl — all sense the insensitivity as well but have their own reasons for staying in the production. Meanwhile, the rehearsal is headed by the white director, who “totally isn’t racist, guys, I promise” and his assistant.

“The Fantasticks,” the record-shattering 1960 off-Broadway musical, is admittedly less complicated in scope. A girl and a boy, unnamed until later on, fall in love but are kept apart by their feuding fathers. However, the two fathers secretly want their children to be together, knowing the boy and girl will long for whatever they are kept from having. The narrator, the mysterious El Gallo (or is he only El Gallo when he wears a cape?), is hired to stage the capture of the girl so the boy can save her, and they can be together forever.

It’s interesting that “Trouble in Mind” directly addresses the concept of not wanting to play stock characters because I can very clearly see an image of Communication junior A.J. Roy reading the script to “Trouble in Mind” when cast as the white director, saying, “I have to play a white racist bigot?” And, in a similar vein, I can hear some similar simplifications for roles in the two shows.

Communication sophomore Alex Gold plays “the old man who teaches the lead character about life with dry wit.”

Bienen sophomore Rosemarie Chandler plays “the young and beautiful ingenue who falls for the boy but is tested by temptation.”

Communication junior Wes Humphrey and Bienen junior Jared Corak are “the comedic and wonderfully enjoyable fathers who want the best for their children but are just a touch obsolete.”

And, of course: Communication junior Janice Theard is “the actress who has grown up amongst prejudice and is finally starting to have enough but is not being heard because the people in charge are still looking down on her regardless of her brilliant mind and resolve.”

Of course, having these stock characters is never an inherently bad choice. Indeed, every actor I just name-dropped was absolutely wonderful in their roles, and I would not change a thing. But it’s worth pointing out that though audiences are constantly pushing for new and interesting plots and conflicts, people might be less inclined to notice when certain roles and relationships remain constant through different media. “Trouble in Mind” and “The Fantasticks” are still wonderful pieces of theater in their own right, but it’s not because of their original characters. It’s because, despite having seen these characters before in other media, these two shows and the fantastic productions of them are still finding ways of reinterpreting the roles and using them to the show’s advantage.

This ties back to plot. Because audiences are now expecting something new and strange to happen when the plot becomes something we’ve heard before  “boy meets girl” or “girl fights prejudice”  it may settle them back into their seats when the characters are not wildly different to ones we’ve seen before either. “Oh,” they now say, “if both the characters and the plot are old hat, I guess they’re really not going for anything truly different.” Then, when the new and interesting plot begins reshaping these older characters, the surprise will be all the more palpable.

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