Coeurage’s “The Sparrow” Reaches the Heights

Coeurage Theatre Company is aptly named. They’re one of LA’s few “pay-what-you-want” troupes – and they love to tackle ambitious projects.

Their latest reach for the sky is The Sparrow, a challenging piece that wrings mythic energies from the common matter of a small-town high school.

The first thing we encounter is Kristin Browning Campbell’s foreboding set, three towering cloth panels warning us that this small world will have large echoes. Next we meet the townspeople in a brief, tense meeting about someone coming – or returning? Then the alien presence enters: a shy, bespectacled girl named Emily.

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Slowly, she works her way into a home and school where people seem conflicted — welcoming yet fearful, even hostile. We gather that Emily left 10 years ago, under circumstances that have scarred everyone in town.

The story is told in a swiftly paced, abstract style. Actors carry the simple set pieces (classroom chairs, lockers, a blanket), and several scenes are told in dance with only scant dialog.

Imagine a tale that’s both light-hearted and tragic, that blends Carrie and the Orpheus myth, Our Town and Spiderman. And does it well. In The Sparrow, we laugh and weep and wonder our way through a compelling tale too complex to simply understand. After applauding loudly, the woman in front of me asked her neighbor, “So what really happened?” — and the lobby afterward buzzed with discussions.

Keeping a sense of powerful mystery alive, amid biology classes and basketball, is one of this play’s achievements. Another is its constant interlacing of playfulness and pathos, never letting us off its emotional hooks.

[Note:  In recent years, a somewhat similar play – Bat Boy, a musical about a feral teen who brings division and healing to a community – has gained a following. (It had a fine performance at CSU Northridge last year; see my review, below.) But where Bat Boy is tongue-in- cheek ironic, The Sparrow is gentle, tragic.  And its characters have the depth and complexity to make it work.]

The playwriting team –- Chris Mathews, Jake Minton and Nathan Allen – deserve credit for weaving their tale’s wildly disparate elements firmly together. And director Joseph V. Calarco is to be congratulated for maintaining the tempo, varying the emotional dynamics, and (not least) solving the script’s traffic demands.

Katie Pelensky, Lillian Solange

Katie Pelensky, Lillian Solange

The Sparrow is virtually “Emily and ensemble,” but Couerage veteran Katie Pelensky proves well equal to the task. Her quiet introvert   wins us so fully that we cannot detach from her even when things get ethically murky. Sustaining nearly every scene,  Pelensky rings her character’s wide-ranging changes clearly, while finding constant surprises of nuance and color. (Small wonder: Besides the mute Lavinia in Coeurage’s Andronicus, she’s also done Juliet, Ariel, Puck, Olivia and Cordelia. And those are just her Shakespeare chops.)

Among the supporting players, Malika Williams brings anchoring strength — and terrible vulnerability — to Emily’s foster mother; newcomer Lillian Solange nicely creates a blithe campus star with a brain, and a heart that can be touched and broken.  Also noteworthy are John McKetta as “the cool teacher” trapped by his shadow, and Jane Lui as a brisk community leader and a harried substitute teacher.

The whole ensemble deserves applause.  Re-setting the stage, they work together as swiftly and surely as  when they’re dancing.  At the same time, they create and sustain a world of specific characters.

Besides Campbell’s minimalist set, Calarco’s sound design (mixing pop hits with Gregory Nabours’ original music) and Benoît Guérin’s understated, effective lighting add powerfully to the storytelling.

In The Sparrow, the Coeurage company dares to craft a lyrical tragedy from simple materials — rising on hard work and homemade wings, they pull it off.
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The Sparrow, by Chris Mathews, Jake Minton, and Nathan Allen; directed by Joseph V. Calarco.
Presented by Coeurage Theatre Company, at the Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, through Nov. 21.

Tickets: <www.coeurage.org>