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The Van Gogh Cafe

a Children's Theater
by Lauren Dunderson, from the book by Cynthia Rylant

COMPANY : Synchronicity Performance Group [WEBSITE]
VENUE : 7 Stages [WEBSITE]
ID# 2804

SHOWING : April 26, 2008 - May 18, 2008



Come to the Van Gogh Cafe for a heaping helping of coffee, biscuits, and magic. In this original adaptation commissioned by Synchronicity Performance Group, puppets and whimsey provide the backdrop for a story of family, friendship and fun.

Adapted script from book by Cynthia Ryla Lauren Gunderson
Director Clint Thornton
Charla Everly / Sam Smeedy Kara Cantrell
Marc Edwin Link
The Star Patrick McColery
Angela / Maria Katie Merritt
Clara Ayesha Ngaujah
Officer Hanson / Billy Tim Stoltenberg
Click to Submit Cast & Crew Info for this production


Could This be The Magic?
by Dedalus
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
In Cynthia Rylant’s book “The Van Gogh Café,” small-town Kansas becomes the setting for magic, as an old theatre is converted to an eatery in which magical things happen. Isn’t that a great idea? Isn’t that a confirmation that our chosen vocation (or avocation) is a source for events that are truly wondrous, amazing, and life-affirming?

Now, Synchronicity Performance Group has commissioned playwright Lauren Gunderson to adapt it to the stage with decidedly mixed results.

Ayesha Ngaujah is Clara, a young girl working at her Daddy’s (formerly her Mommy’s) café in Flowers, Kansas. This is the sort of place where everyone knows your name, your “usual” order, and the best way to make you smile. It is through Clara’s eyes that we see the whimsical events take place.

And they are magical. A possum hangs from a tree outside, and squabbling neighbors refind their friendship. Mini-muffins magically reproduce until there are enough to feed the kids in a snow-storm-wrecked bus. A lost sea gull is wooed by a klepto-kat, and finds its way back to the sea. Food appears as if by magic, poems portend the future, and an old actor is reunited with his “special friend.” And it all concludes with an anthem to friendship – magic may be okay in an emergency, but it is the magic of friendship that lasts the longest and yields the richest returns.

I like the stories and the message and I liked the possum puppet’s shy smile and friendly giggle. I also found a few of the sequences a bit slower-paced than was good for them, the two or three songs not especially memorable, and most of the other puppetry a bit less-than-magical. And, to acknowledge the target audience, my daughter Julia enjoyed the show, but didn’t find it memorable enough to tell me her favorite parts.

The book itself is a series of independent incidents, each magical moment having its distinct beginning, middle, and end. The adaptation tries to blend the stories, so we see some story threads from each chapter interspersed throughout. I’m not sure that’s the best decision – a lot of time is spent on exposition that doesn’t pay off until several scenes later. But again, the stories themselves are whimsical and gentle enough that this isn’t a fatal misstep. And the scene with the old actor (a marvelous Patrick McColery) is truly touching with a magical conclusion that departs from the book in a nice way.

If I found the puppetry (the possum excepted) a bit clunky and un-magical, Julia didn’t. When the twelve young bus-wreck kids come onstage, her face lit up like a beacon, as it did when the klepto-kat crossed the windowsill with another sock in its mouth.

The entire cast of actors and puppeteers is engaging and energetic. In addition to Ms. Ngaujah and Mr. McCorlery, there is Edwin Link as Clara’s Daddy, Kara Cantrell as a neighbor and a reporter, Katie Merritt as a visitor who decides to stay instead of just “pass though town,” and a very funny Tim Stoltenberg as the neighborhood cop who can’t smile even when his heart is soaring. But it is Ms. Ngaujah who is truly magical -- she has a smile that could light up a city and a sunny outlook that could melt any grumpy old critic’s heart.

An interesting thing has happened here. I sat down a little while ago, beginning this column with the intention of being very strict with this show, judging it as ”okay but not great.” But, as I’ve been ticking off the things I didn’t like, the image of Clara’s smile, the pleasure of sharing her innocent acceptance of all the whimsey around her, my memory of the show is warming considerably.

And what could be more magical than that?



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