‘Holly Down In Heaven’ at Forum Theatre by Jessica Vaughan

Forum Theatre successfully takes on religion, teenage pregnancy, and Chucky’s slightly milder cousins in Holly Down in Heaven – their new work by Resident Playwright Kara Lee Corthron.

Maya Jackson and Vanessa Strickland maneuvering a puppet doll that looks a lot like Broadway legend Carol Channing. Photo by Ryan Maxwell.

Forum Theatre has a mission to ask big questions and build community with the pieces they choose. They were founded in 2003, and have grown their reputation for taking on big and important pieces with their small company. They’ve been a resident theater company at the Round House Theatre Silver Spring for three years.

Holly Down in Heaven feels surprisingly global given that Holly (Maya Jackson) never leaves the basement. She’s gotten pregnant with her next-door neighbor (Parker Drown) and been born-again at Church Camp in the same month and refuses to leave the basement as penance…or something…until the baby comes. Her Father (KenYatta Rogers) lets her do it and employs a tutor (Dawn Thomas) to keep her moving towards the PSATS.

Corthron has put a twist on the normal teenage pregnancy story in that Holly is book-smart and devoutly Christian, and pregnant, while her father is liberal, not religious, and accepting. But none of these are the main relationships in Holly’s life in the basement. They would be her dolls. One is played by puppeteer Vanessa Strickland – the Carol Channing look-alike therapist with a great voice. All of the rest on the shelves around the set are played by KyoSin and Luke Cieslewicz. Are they psychological projections? Is Holly going crazy? That question is up in the air.

Director (and Artistic Director) Michael Dove has done quite a wonderful job coordinating what is essentially a cast of hundreds, few of whom could move on their own. And he keeps every actor as real and as matter-of-fact as possible, which makes the lightning, clever dialogue real and meaningful.

Lighting Designer Brittany Diliberto and Sound Designer Thomas Sowers create a cacophony of voices and lighting each doll as he or she speaks. It could not have been easy to coordinate. The set design by Steven T. Royal conveys the dark claustrophobia of a basement in a spacious theater with five low beams to signal the ceiling and the huge stairs up to the real world. But it ‘s the little details that really make the set cool, with the pile of Nintendo games and of course, all of the dolls. Prop Designers Debra Crerie and Kay Rzasa have a lot of fun work to do.

Jackson play Holly – the lynchpin – and she delivers! She captures the all-knowing naïveté of a teenager combined with self-obsession and occasional cruelty. Holly is spoiled and bratty and a teenager, but Jackson throws such passion into her that it’s never off-putting.

KenYatta Rogers and Maya Jackson. Photo by Ryan Maxwell.

The puppeteers do a fantastic job as well. They are everywhere around the stage, in every kind of role, covering Queen Elizabeth, a geisha, and several other nationalities and cultures. I was shocked at the end when only three of them walked out on stage. I figured there had to be a dozen people involved. The fact that the dolls are all from around the world was a fun part of the play. It was another factor that made this seem larger than life and I liked Corthron’s little in-jokes and cultural references among the dolls. But yes, they are inevitably super creepy and at points, downright scary.

Dawn Thomas (as the tutor) does not have an easy role as the stick-in-the-mud amidst the crazy father/daughter pair and the ex-boyfriend (who occasionally crashes through the window and wonders why Holly is getting so fat), but she pulls it off. Rogers is simply hilarious as the father. His transformation throughout the play is almost as complete as Holly’s own transformation.

Holly Down in Heaven is an entertaining night of theater and an honest look at adolescence and growing up. And it fulfills the Forum Theater’s mandate to talk about important issues in the world – like religion and responsibility and just how much you can blame your parents for your life.

Holly Down in Heaven is about this unique character that Corthron creates and how she affects the people in her life, and how they affect her life. The play works so well because Holly is clearly such a joy for the playwright to create, and for Jackson to bring to life.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and ten minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Holly Down In Heaven plays through October 20, 2012 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.


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