BY NATATLIE ALLEN
I would give Mike Lew’s “Bike America” a thumbs up, but only with an addendum. The show, about an hour and 45 minutes, was full of great ideas: fabulous acting, a direction done by Moritz von Stuelpnagel that was awe inspired, wonderful props and sets (well done, designer Andrew Boyce!), political views, and… a moral? That’s where I found the show fell short, and not in a literal way.
We’re greeted by perky brunette, Penny, played by magnetic powerhouse Jessica DiGiovanni, as she narrates her own death at night, on a lonely highway, in the deserts of the western United States. Interesting.
Penny is a lost 27 year old Graduate student stuck in her life in Boston. She’s in an unfulfilling relationship with her clingy semi-boyfriend, Todd, played by a hilarious Vandit Bhatt, when she decides, at the drop of a hat, to join a bike-for-cancer cross-country bicycle haul in the hopes of finding herself. She leaves her life in Boston and joins the tour as it makes its way through American cities portrayed simply, Vaudeville-style, with clever posters and printed drops pushed on stage. Meanwhile, Penny begins to build precarious relationships with her biking buddies.
The first victim of her self titled “fuck up” self is Tim Billy, played by a wonderful Landon Woodson, who teaches Penny that finding happiness isn’t about being in the perfect tangible place. Okay, Penny’s learning here; I get it. I’m a 26 year old and can understand the dilemma in not quite knowing the future. I’ll buy it.
Then, Penny forages a torrid affair with Tour leader, Ryan, well played by Tom White, who hazards that happiness isn’t in a place, but a time and that maybe Penny will grow into her happiness and center. Alright, I started to sense a theme here. The show wasn’t about a slice of experience, but about a message?
After deciding that the boys are too much Penny moves on to the lesbian couple in the group, Annabel (Marilyn Torres) and Rorie (Melanie Nicholls-King) whose love is an example of how happiness can be found in human interactions and relationships. I started to feel duped. This show was rapidly turning away from the coming of age story of Penny the Lost, to the innocuous teachings of how to be a better person through opening your heart.
While on the one hand, I could see some people loving the message of the show, I was uninspired by the end, feeling like the message was being hammered home over and over and leaving me feeling like I had accidentally walked into a cleverly hidden sermon about how to be a better person. There was no intermission, either, which meant that the production began to feel long at an hour and a half, especially since the last 15 minutes after that bench mark dissolved into a full-blown moral, narrated by a dead Penny, about how she died from her closed-hearted ways and that by opening her heart she could have lived. Oy. Could have done without that.
From the moment the play starts the momentum was tremendous. The timing of the scene changes was fantastic, the music was well chosen, the props were great! The rest of the world is filled in beautifully by David Shih, who plays Man with the Van and other colorful characters, including a brilliantly written indecisive Ohio resident. Melanie Nicholls-King was a fantastic bartender in Louisville, and Marilyn Torres was feisty, contrasting her excellently crafted Mom to the softer Annabel. The cast of characters on their bikes as they “journey” across the U.S. was imaginative and fun! The ensemble used simple choreography to demonstrate their movement on pantomimed bikes; I was so impressed by that. I do wish that the electric story-telling could have been the main focus of the piece, why have a moral to end the show? I would recommend seeing this, just take the end with a grain of salt.
BIKE AMERICA Written by Mike Lew
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
WITH: Vandit Bhatt (Todd); Jessica DiGiovanni (Penny); Melanie Nicholls-King (Rorie, Marilyn, Lauralie); David Shih (Man with the Van, Gene, Stuart, Carlo), Marilyn Torres (Annabel, Patty, Mom); Tom White (Ryan); and Landon G. Woodson (Tim Billy).
Set Design by: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design by: Melissa Schachtmeyer and Amy Pedigo-Otto; Lighting Design by: Matthew Richards; Sound Design by: Jill BC Du Boff; Production Stage Manager: David S. Cohen; Production Manager: Miranda Frederick and Lay Hoon Tan; and Producer: Suzette Porte.
Performances are through October 20th at the St. Clements Theatre at 423 W. 46th street, NYC. Tickets are $35. http://ma-yitheatre.org.