The show: "Gilbert the Great" by Broken Umbrella Theatre at Erector Square in New Haven.
What makes it special?: The premiere of a work by the young theater company who made an impression last June with "Freewheelers" at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. This time out its site-specific work is set in the actual funky factory where the play's action takes place.
First impressions: This very talented theater company once again shows its theatrical ingenuity as it mines local history and spins an imaginative tale that transcends mere biography and New Haven boosterism. The play centers on A.C. Gilbert who created the Erector Set 100 years ago and like the famous "toys for boys" the storytelling is constructed in pieces, then taken apart and then reassembled into something quite new, wonderful and unexpected.
The broken narrative reflects the personalities of the quintet of characters at the struggling factory in 1954 who are trying to capture the magic of its flawed founder — the man who showed the children of America the power of possibilities and that toys are indeed, us.
Sounds interesting but it's just a building toy, no?: No. Long before Legos, A.C. Gilbert's toy captured the zeitgeist of the young 20th century skyscraper boom and electrification era.
Broken Umbrella's playful, if-at-times overstuffed narrative taps into the excitement and energy of that time and of the man, while indicating this oddball visionary's limits. Gilbert saw the toy as exclusively for boys and his sexism blinded him not only to the marketplace but to the talents of his skillful daughters. (He eventually left his company to his inadequate son.)
What's it about?: The show imagines a group of mid-century factory workers trying one last time to create a sensational toy that could tap into a different era of modernity. In harkening back to the founder's ethos and embrace of adventure, exploration and risk — including Gilbert's time at Yale, the Olympics and as a magician (hence the title) — the group discovers that creativity exists in us all.
The storytelling is fun and frisky — but additional construction is needed to make this a more impressive, and solid creation. Interesting and even darker ideas, themes and relationships are lightly touched on only to be swept away with theatrical whimsy. Audiences assembly is required for a fuller play.
But there's no faulting the cast that has the spirit, imagination and nerve — there's more than one leap of faith here — that you hope for in a young theater company. It's an impressive ensemble with the five actors playing multiple parts but Ryan Gardner is a spark-plug standout with charisma to spare; Rachel Alderman adds the right sardonic sass to her roles; Matthew Gaffney nicely evokes Gilbert's can-do athleticism; Lou Mangini brings an adult sensibility to the kids in the hall; and Lisa Daly brings charm and freshness to her archetypical characters.
So who wrote the show?: As in many small companies, creativity loves a crowd and indeed the program lists Jes Mack and Charlie Alexander as playwrights with no less than three directors: Gardner, Rubin Ortiz and Ian Alderman.
Sometimes group dynamics result in bland theater-by-committee but here there's a lot of smart and creative people in the room. Still, the show could improve and deepen with a sharper focus, pruning in certain areas and expanding in others, always a challenge among multiple visionaries. Group efforts make for great beginnings but often imperfect ends.
Who will like it?: Those who like to make things — and make things happen. Those looking for a new theater group to cheer.
Who won't?: The folks at Lincoln Logs.
For the kids?: It's about magic, toys and theatrical imagination, what's not to like?
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Talk about Transformers. Play — and theater company — construct impressive creation that toys around with local legend.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: Last year it was about girdles (the Smoothie Foundation Garment Factory in New Haven). This year it's about girders. Over the past five years, Broken Umbrella has tapped into the local community of New Haven — where great things begin — by making its past relevant to the present and by making theater that's an adventure. A.C. Gilbert would heartily approve.
The basics: The show plays through June 8 at Erector Square, 315 Peck St., Building 5, Floor 2 in New Haven. Running time is 85 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance; $10 for kids 12 and under. A limited number of pay-what-you-can tickets available one hour before each show at the door; www.abrokenumbrella.org.
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Correction: An earlier version misnamed one of the directors of the show. He is Ian Alderman, not Ian Alexander.