Urbanite Ruffles Feathers (Or Not) with "Wakey, Wakey"

Theater

BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY AUG 17, 2018

For most theater professionals, not to mention the director of the show currently on stage, waking up to find a one-star review sounds like a nightmare. But not for Brendan Ragan. As cofounder of Urbanite Theatre, it’s practically in the mission statement to push boundaries and buttons, and as director of Wakey, Wakey, the Obie Award-winning latest from acclaimed playwright Will Eno, part of him had to know it was coming. Eno himself famously remarked on the lack of middle ground in his works’ reception. So when the Urbanite received, after three years of operation, its first one-star review, Ragan couldn’t help but smile. “I did wear it with some pride,” he admits. But still, there it sat—one star, no comment. The theater responded, contrite and asking if there was anything the staff could do. But maybe they’d already done enough.

Clocking in at a relatively brief 70 minutes with no intermission, Wakey, Wakey packs a punch nonetheless, as Eno drops the audience into the protagonist’s life at a supreme moment of vulnerability. Exploring this vulnerability becomes the drama, and comedy, of the show, as Eno’s everyman leads the audience through all the ramblings and inner workings of a mind grasping at meaning. “It’s funny in unexpected ways, and it’s uplifting in surprising ways,” says Ragan. “It filled me with such optimism, even though it’s about something potentially tragic.” And, as director, finding that balance became the primary focus, a task made easier with the casting of Pittsburgh actor James FitzGerald as the lead. “It would have been very easy to lose track of the heavier stuff and make it all a joke,” says Ragan. “But that was the great part about working with him.”

Meeting eight years ago as actors in Baltimore, Ragan knew he wanted to work with FitzGerald again. The latter was tackling two shows at once—playing the title role in an uproarious comedy on one stage and then delivering heavy Shakespeare on the other. “Once we officially got word that we were doing Wakey, Wakey,” says Ragan, “he was the first actor that jumped into mind.” Not only was Ragan sure that FitzGerald could handle the different layers of comedy, from dry irony to slapstick clowning, but that he could land that “gut punch” when necessary. “He has a deep emotional well to draw from,” says Ragan, “and we’re painting a real rollercoaster of a picture.”

And Ragan admits that roller coaster can be a difficult one, with “ample opportunity” for tears to be shed. Audience reaction has been emotional, he says, but largely positive. That one-star review stood out. “It’s not going to be for everyone,” he reminded himself. Then he received the phone call. The reviewer had seen Urbanite’s response and taken a second look at her review, and was mortified. It was supposed to be a five-star review, she said, but was apparently bungled. With a little help, she set it right.

As for Ragan, he can live with the five-star review, most likely, even if it has been its own miniature rollercoaster. “Will Eno has a real knack for subverting your expectations,” he says, “as both a viewer and reader of his work.”

Wakey, Wakey is currently onstage at Urbanite Theatre and runs through September 2.

Pictured: James FitzGerald in Urbanite Theatre's production of "Wakey, Wakey." Photo by Dylan Jon Wade Cox.

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