'Tis a gift to be simplistic

What is it about Robert Fulghum's work that I hate so much?

Facing your fears, as any self-help book will tell you, is a necessary part of conquering them. This is what I kept repeating to myself on the way to the Bathhouse's production of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a dramatic adaptation by Ernest Zulia of the popular oeuvre of local author Robert Fulghum.

All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten

Bathhouse Theater, through July 19

Only having skimmed the occasional tome of Fulghumania, I knew that in part my fear was irrational. His writings are pretty painless, really; a big plate of life lessons with a side order of homilies and a sprinkling of cliché, inoffensive, good-natured, and as flavorful and nourishing as Velveeta on Wonder Bread. His inspirational observations must lead his neighbors to a certain caution when he's around; this is a guy who can turn your struggle with a defective garbage bag into eight pages of homespun wisdom. I find it a little disconcerting that there are people out there who find Fulghum the suburban equivalent of Confucius, but it's probably just my own intellectual snobbery. If he's giving real solace or guidance to his readers, who am I to butt my critical nose in?

But whether or not Fulghum's books make good philosophy, they definitely don't make good theater. Each of his heartwarming anecdotes comes in the form of a meandering joke, only instead of laughing at the punch line, you're supposed to be enlightened by it. Conflict is minimal, characterization is stripped of all complexity, and to make sure that every point is properly punctuated with meaning, each piece features an actor standing in for the authorial "I" of Fulghum's writing. It's an effective dike to keep out the potential floodwaters of ambiguity or subtlety.

You needn't worry about not "getting it"; each of the scenarios is so predictably heartwarming that you can be assured of seeing it a mile off. Here's a quick test to show what I mean. An elderly gentleman announces to his family that it's Christmas Eve, even though it's July. Do they a) call up the local fogy farm and have him carted off; b) reflect on the mysterious and varying nature of memory, and how it determines an individual's personality; or c) bring over a lot of presents and preserve the old guy's illusion so as to bring him some simple happiness in his declining years?

Now that wasn't very hard, was it?

David Caldwell's musical contributions are pleasant but surprisingly sparse; there's an introductory song and one gospel knockoff that's reprised to close both halves, along with incidental tinkling. If I didn't know better, I'd say there was something cynical about selling this show as a musical revue.

But in one way the show completely transcends the material, and that's the efforts of the cast. With old pros like Lori Larsen, Todd Licea, and Jim Gall on board, the show comes dangerously near to being truly entertaining. At several points in the show it's clear that these folks are having a great time. During one sketch, Lori Larsen's exceptionally inspired portrayal of a first grader playing a pig in a school pageant led to audible offstage chortling from her cohort Jack Clay. My hat is off to such a professional lack of cynicism. It almost made me feel like a grouchy old killjoy trampling on the ensemble's flowers. But then I realized that they were plastic anyway.

 
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