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MT Cozzola's new play is about a boy kept in a cage, but it opens with Boy (Stephen Cefalu Jr.) standing tall, free and defiant. Comparing his own suffering to those of Shakepeare’s tragic heroes and heroines, he admits he can't truly understand anyone else’s suffering but his own. An honest statement, maybe even a selfish one. But then he transforms: He enters his cage and becomes the trapped animal his father has made him—then you understand.
In this moment it was hard not to think about my frustration with “head actors.” Perhaps as a consequence of our country’s long love affair with realism or the cultural saturation of film and television, so many actors feel trapped in their bodies, acting “from the neck up.” What makes this production so refreshing is its attention to both realistic emotion and theatrical physical exploration.
Cefalu wears his suffering on his body. The rocket pace of his mind, revealed in his Hamlet-like soliloquies, clashes with his increasingly animalistic physicality. He captures the vulnerable child of the Boy, the one that was never allowed to grow out of the cage, but he never lets us forget that his spirit is a more vicious creature, and capable of wreaking its own havoc.
But the Boy isn’t the only character with these dualities and contradictions. The Dad (a chilling Malcolm Callan) is a character that in lesser hands could become a simple villain. But Callan doesn’t take the easy way out. His eyes are an especially deadly weapon, betraying a painful yearning and insecurity, a pitiful fear of abandonment. With each look he challenges you to understand him, which only makes his brutality more painful. That same complexity can be seen in Sherry (Cat Dean), a desperately sexual being, feeling little for her lover’s children beyond her jealousy toward his younger, blonder daughter Sissy (Taryn Wood). We watch as Dean takes Sherry from complete callousness to a point of near-redemption. And Sissy, initially the Boy’s access to knowledge and love, becomes twisted by her father, who decides to teach her his ways. The way this gradually alters the relationship between Sissy and Boy is heartbreaking, and Wood and Cefalu pull it off beautifully.
It should be clear by this point that this is not a comfortable play. As a whole, it’s dark and murky, but with a streak of humor that compounds its visceral effect: Deanna Moffitt’s various “Outsiders,” including the nosy neighbor who gave the family her cage and an absurdly overworked social worker, provide some of the most effective examples of this tension. It’s those contradictions that elevate Boy Small from wallowing to good theater.