The delightful, unique Mockingbird on Main is marking its first anniversary this month in downtown Davenport. It has a lot to celebrate.
The intimate, cabaret-style venue (about 35-seat capacity) at 320 Main St. has specialized in area premieres or brand-new plays, in part because that saves on royalty costs for established works. But it also makes the Mockingbird a magnet for local creatives who want to see their original visions come to life, and for that reason alone, the courageous, exciting theater should be praised.
One of the busiest voices in that regard at Mockingbird is Alexander Richardson, a prolific East Moliner.
He brought his modern, slimmed-down adaptation of Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” to the theater last fall; co-starred in Tristan Tapscott’s reimagining of “Around the World in 80 Days” in March (with his girlfriend Sydney Dexter), and now is premiering a thought-provoking new play, “Your Better Self,” which also co-stars the wonderful Dexter.
She is a consistently engaging, electric presence on stage, here embodying the wealthy Zenola Goodrich, who’s well off but feels lacking in the love department. Dexter is matched in the high-energy department by the mesmerizing Emmalee Hilburn as Antoinette Caldwell, who married for love and lives in poverty.
After a chance encounter, these two old friends catch up and realize they’re living the life the other wants. Richardson’s clever conceit is that they’re always accompanied by their pesky, persistent subconscious – Jo Vasquez as “Nolie” and Shyann Devoss as “Toni.”
These two firecrackers are constantly unloading one-liners, offering the snarky thoughts, sarcastic complaints and yearning wishes that their physical selves can’t quite say out loud. Don’t you dream of saying exactly what you’re thinking, but societal norms won’t let you? “Your Better Self” lets the women’s exhilarating freak flags fly.
A photoshoot between John (Adam Cerny) and Zenola – a former couple, and he Antoinette’s current hubs — scheduled as a favor will upend both of their lives and send them in search of their better selves. The tantalizing, nearly always entertaining play, aims to revitalize an old classic and asks, “Who is the best version of you?”
Updating a 107-year-old play
Richardson, often mindful of what came before, was inspired to riff off of Alice Gerstenberg’s “Overtones,” originally written in 1915.
“In the early 20th century, there was an explosion of theater as regional and community theaters sprung up across America — what’s fascinating is that in a time where women still did not have the right to vote, community theaters were run largely by and for women and ‘Overtones’ is one of the relics of this movement,” he said before the premiere.
“At a time when this was a radical concept, Gerstenberg wrote a play showing women having interior lives and thoughts. More than being a hostess, mother, or wife, women were people first,” Richardson said. What a concept!!
The way she illustrated this point was by having two sets of women on stage, portraying only two characters, and while it’s now relatively common to have one actor playing multiple roles, the young playwright said there’s really no other full-length show (other than “Overtones”) that required multiple actors to play one role.”
“When I finished reading it the first time, I said, ‘where’s the rest of it? This is really fun, there should be more of it.’ And unprompted, the rest of the play came to me in the span of a weekend,” Richardson said.
Tapscott – who co-founded and co-owns the Mockingbird with his fiancée, Savannah Bay Strandin — said the new play has echoes of the colorful Pixar film “Inside Out” (having actual characters embody emotions) and the stormy relationship rollercoaster “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
“Your Better Self” is directed with devastating emotional precision by Cynthia Taylor, and sensitively produced and designed by Tapscott and Strandin.
Powerful scenes and confusion
The play (about two hours long with no intermission) works best as a series of set pieces, with powerful give-and-take between two main characters at a time (plus the biting subconscious commentary).
The two male leads confidently dominate their scenes, especially Adam Cerny as the open-hearted, sensual photographer John. Cerny is a magnetic, dazzling actor regardless of the role. Both his scenes with Dexter are thrilling and keep you on the edge of your seat.
Same goes with Hilburn and Eric Teeter, who drips with self-entitled arrogance, condescension and chilling control as Charles, Zenola’s husband. Hilburn initially pours on the flirtation and feeds his boundless ego, Teeter lets his superiority get the better of him and faces a cruel reckoning.
A later scene with Cerny and Dexter, when they relive their first date, his infatuation with her and later fallout also packs an enormous gut punch. And Vasquez’s impersonation as Charles (crouching, legs spread) is hilarious.
My main difficulty with “Your Better Self” is in Alisha Hanes’s character of Miranda, and whoever “Chloe” is. Hanes starts as kind of an “Alexa” voice, counseling Zenola on how to be her better self, and then acting as the story’s spiritual guide, in later monologues, with what appears to be her unseen intuition.
I wasn’t sure if she was a podcast host or what, and she is perfectly fine in the advice-giving role, but the last scene totally threw me into uncharted, confusing waters. It gave all the intelligence and dramatic fireworks that came before a wholly unsatisfying, unresolved kind of conclusion.
“Your Better Self” itself will conclude with performances next weekend, July 15 and 16 at 8 p.m. Mockingbird on Main is now a “Pay What You Can” venue and guests pay via cash or Venmo at the door. For further details, visit the theater website.