Disney’s The Magic Kingdom makes a perfect stand-in for the United States of America. Think about it. Happiness is its main goal, just as the pursuit of happiness is highlighted in one of our nation’s founding documents. The Magic Kingdom reinforces the idea of our melting pot in its wide-ranging cuisine choices, as well as in its attractions. And capitalism lies at the center of our democracy as much as it fuels Disney’s ever-expanding brand and fantasies. In The New Colony’s “Small World,” these parallels are reinforced by three poor Disney workers trapped inside the titular attraction during a potential terrorist attack. One is a cynical, community-rejecting lesbian; one is a Bible-quoting, potentially violent fundamentalist; and one just wants everybody to work together in order to achieve their mutual freedom.
Perhaps I am stretching. I do not know for certain whether playwrights Jillian Leff and Joe Lino intended the happiest place on Earth to serve as an allegory for our current political and social divisions. But the three points of view at the heart of this production most certainly invite that reading, and director Andrew Hobgood’s clarifying, triangular staging often places these three characters in debate-like or mediating stances.
So who are these characters? Kim (co-artistic director Stephanie Shum) believes in Disney; she grew up without parental support or friends, and working at the park is a dream come true for her. Unfortunately, she now finds herself pinned to the floor of Small World by a flag that’s impaled her leg. Becca (Jackie Seijo) finds no joy in parading tourists around the Magic Kingdom, and hides her propensity for fleeing conflict by relying on Donny (Patriac Coakley) to rescue them all. Donny knows a thing or two about first aid — though he initially seems unaware that one should never attempt to remove an impaled object — and he is determined to stay alive, with or without the help of his colleagues. He starts hinting at a conservative, if unconventional, religious background early on, and as the workers learn more about their hopeless situation, they push each other farther and farther away. Will they make it out of Small World? Will Kim make any friends in the process? Will any of us be able to get that annoying theme park music out of our heads?!
Leff and Lino’s script piles on a heap of realistic, stakes-raising issues for the characters to confront. First, there’s the matter of Kim’s blood loss. Then a corpse floats by. The stability of overhead beams becomes a question, as does the viability of two potential escape routes. This is all very gruesome stuff, and so it becomes hard to square the realistic dangers with the more absurd, allegorical elements at play. Terror at the happiest place on Earth makes for wonderful irony, but when the logistics of how long Kim would actually stay conscious begin to bump up against the larger philosophical differences between the three characters, I began to wish the absurd had appeared earlier in the play, so I would be more focused on the problems being discussed and the thematic points being made. Perhaps in the next production, these parallel lines will be smoothed out, but here, I found myself getting distracted by reality when the world of the play insisted on discussing something larger.
Still, it’s a bold script, and Hobgood leans into its humor in surprising ways. Though hampered by physical constraints, each actor finds creative approaches to pratfalls, losing his/her lunch, and dealing with the corpse of a co-worker. Shum is particularly engaging as Kim, her desperate optimism never curdling into something darker. She is easily the play’s most sympathetic character, and her command of the stage while working under the weight of an impaling object is impressive. Coakley delivers solid menace mixed with increasing hysteria, and Seijo is easily the most relatable figure, unsure what to do with herself, and uncertain that she will ever find solutions to their growing list of interpersonal and environmental problems.
Sotirios Livaditis’ set evokes a pastel-colored nightmare without laying on the irony too thick. Erik Siegling’s sound proves paramount in understanding how unstable and dangerous the surroundings are, and Jennifer Wernau creates both a believable gruesome injury and a realistic enough corpse to give this audience member the shudders. Uriel Gomez’s costumes evoke the sameness of all work uniforms, and Zack Meyer’s violence design serves the story well.
All in all, this production is an impressive achievement. The artists commit to telling a difficult story onstage, and if the larger thematic concerns get lost amid everything else, at least the ride is exciting. And isn’t customer satisfaction what Disney relishes above all?
DICE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: A ride at Disney World turns into a real terror.
Show: “Small World”
Company: The New Colony
Venue: The Den Theatre (1331 N Milwaukee Ave)