Vagabond Traveling Theatre

at the Playwrights’ Center

In order to better judge children’s plays, I’ve started to borrow my friends’ kids. Before I went to see Josh White III and Robert C. Williams’s The Land of Everywhere, I tried to get a loan of six-year-old Daniel. His mother wanted a synopsis of the story, so I read to her from the press release.

“Children worry about the threat of nuclear war,” it said. “Here is an unusual and well-crafted play that deals with the subject of the spiraling arms race in an entertaining, nonthreatening and disarming way.” There was also something about the piece being “a lighthearted model of conflict resolution.”

Even before I finished reading, I knew I’d lost the kid as a theater companion. “Gee, I don’t know if I want Daniel to learn about nuclear war just yet,” said his mother.

I tried a couple of other moms who are usually grateful to get rid of their little darlings for a few hours, but the reaction was the same. Even adults wouldn’t go with me. And frankly that’s too bad, because The Land of Everywhere is a pretty fun production. There are a lot of snappy one-liners, shouting, and manic running around.

Why the Vagabond Traveling Theatre and the Playwrights’ Center are trying to pawn off White and Williams’s story as pretentious psychowillybabble for kids is beyond me. The word “nuclear” never comes up. Nobody dies, nobody gets hurt, and nobody experiences any angst. The Land of Everywhere is just your basic kids’ story–with a bunch of good guys, a bunch of bad guys who aren’t really that bad, and a hapless hero.

The story is told in two parts. The first is set in a theater as two actors, waiting for a third, are preparing to do a show. They’re interrupted by a janitor who insists there’s no performance scheduled and tries to throw them out. In the process the janitor also manages to share with the two actors his very low opinion of their profession. They respond by praising the magic of the stage and, finally, challenging the janitor to join them when the third actor falls to show up.

The second part takes place in the land of everywhere–basically, our imaginations. There, the Somebodies are busy trying to find a way to blow up the Anybodies, who are cooking up a way to get rid of the Somebodies. And the only one with an answer is the Nobody.

Seems that up in the mountains, the Nasties are brewing up some trouble, and the janitor–transported against his will to Everywhere–is the only one who can stop it. Once he does, the whole mess ends, and he can go back to the theater, clean up, and go home.

At first the acknowledgment that the actors (and we) are in a theater seems self-conscious. The actors, ably played by White and Dan Shea, point the audience out to the janitor, who agrees to allow the show to go on only because there are people present. There are other periodic reminders that we’re just hanging out in a storefront on Clark Street, and that what we’re enjoying is a mutually agreed upon pretense.

This periodic breaking down of the wall between stage and real life serves a very useful purpose. Every time the action got too wild, or the scene too scary, the performers would remind us–especially the kids–that it was only make-believe. In fact, after the show a fellow theatergoer, six-year-old Joanna, swore she hadn’t been frightened because she knew all along it wasn’t real.

“How’d you know?” I asked her, and she looked at me with one of those what-will-these-adults-think-of-next expressions.

“Because,” she said.

“Because what?” I insisted.

“Because they said it was just for fun!” she exclaimed, pointing at the stage.

The Land of Everywhere is about 45 minutes long–perfect for a kid’s attention span. It’s fast paced and zany, and the simplicity of its staging actually fuels the imagination. Herb Tums, as the janitor, is a joy to watch. Although White and Shea are bundles of energy, Tums’s earnestness and eccentricity steal the show.