Eugene Weekly : Theater : 9.25.08

New Work, Time-honored Theme
ACE’s Tell Me reaches beyond fantasy
by Anna Grace

Take a normal family, balancing football with work, dinner, laundry. This crazy/normal life is complicated by a sometimes spirited, sometimes spoiled, hyper-imaginative middle child, Jessie (Ashley Apelzin). Jessie’s fantasy world, and her family’s ability to cope with it, twist unexpectedly when Jessie is diagnosed with a life- threatening disease. 

Colin Gray, Erica Jean, Ashley Apelzin & Amanda Fackrell in Tell Me

Much of the action centers around Jessie’s elaborate fantasy life. Translating her pain into a pack of piranhas, treating the pharmacist as a vassal who may lose his head for failing to produce the proper tribute, Jessie plays out her active imaginings with charm. These are fun, often fascinating and a little cramped on ACE’s small stage. At their best they transport the audience into Jessie’s beautiful imagination; at their worst they flirt with bad taste and derail the action. Can you forgive a break in the plot for an extremely clever mission to Mars? Probably. There are times when the celebration and near glorification of a creative child dying of cancer feels opportunistic, yet the writers seem conscious of this and echo the concern in a lovely solo (“I Don’t Know”) for Jessie’s father.

The plot, girl with disease saving the world with her wonderful imagination, is carried out ably by the energetic Apelzin. Yet the themes — How do we walk the line between fantasy and reality? How do we balance the wonder of death with the mundane realities of life? — belong to Jessie’s mother, Carolyn (Erica Jean). Jean is brilliant. This surprises me, because in the last three plays I have seen at ACE, Jean has played the same role of a wonderful, supportive woman helping someone follow their dreams, no matter how crazy (saving an entire village that lives on a speck of dust, taking flight in a lawn chair, selling imaginary chocolates to raise a million dollars for cancer research). She is extremely talented in this role, but I await the day I can see her talent showcased in another way. Say, as Medea.

Across the board voices are strong, including those of the children. Ben Klute and Caleb Hartsfield stand out respectively as the sullen, older brother and the obliging, tag-along kid brother.

ACE producers Joe Zingo and Jim Roberts found this play on a scouting mission to New York. Their dedication to finding and nurturing emerging artists is exciting and rewarding for their fans, benefiting artists, local actors and audiences. Tell Me is a collaboration between writer A.D. Penedo and composer Marshall Pailet. ACE claims that Marshall Pailet is “an extremely gifted young composer.” I cannot comment on the extent of his gifts, only his age (he’s 22). I liked the music, but I’m not humming any of the songs as I write this though I remember one particularly haunting, dissonant piece sung to the beat of the child’s electrocardiogram monitor. But much of the music was fun. Klute and Hartsfield rap a sales pitch for chocolate hearts that don’t exist, and that piece alone is worth the price of admission. 

Tell Me is one of the most interesting plays I have seen at ACE. Directed by New Yorker Igor Goldin, this is a darker, edgier production than recent ACE tales. Tell Me is an intelligent, uplfting and thought-provoking take on the old theme, “Follow your dreams.”

Tell Me continues at ACE through Oct. 11. Tix at or 683-4368.



Opening Nights

Doubt: A Parable opens at the Lord Leebrick Theatre Friday, Sept. 26.

Who’s lying: the strict, upright, older nun? The young, hip, charismatic but possibly alcoholic or child-molesting priest? The intimidated young teacher? The boy’s mother? If you leave without doubts, you’re missing the point of this powerful one-act play, directed by thoughtful veteran Carol Horne Dennis. The prize-winning N.Y. cast claimed that the second act involved everyone talking after the play ended. But there’s no second act without a first, so step up for tix. Show dates are Sept. 26-27 and Oct. 2-5, 7-12 & 16-18. Tix at or 465-1506.