Kevin Kling & Co. wrap Gulliver's tale in modern yarns

ROB CALLAHAN | Updated 12/1/2013

Review: Kevin Kling and Chastity Brown headline "Gulliver Unravels" at the Fitz

Narrator Kevin Kling and Music Director Dan Chouinard look on while Bradley Greenwald recounts his adventures as Lemuel Gulliver.

Kevin Kling and Chastity Brown have two of the most distinctive voices in town. That's not just because the actual frequency of air particles vibrating between their mouths and your ears is distinctive, but so are the lives lived behind those mouths. Their personalities sway their respective tones as much as the sizes and shapes of their vocal chords. In essence, and for lack of a better term, they've both got soul.
Plenty of reviewers are quick to praise Brown for her soulfulness, bluesiness or whatever other safe and somewhat descriptive choice of noun is going around at the time, but their reviews often fall short of truly communicating just how soulful she is. Hers is the kind of soulfulness you're pretty sure one can only get, perhaps ironically, by selling one's soul down at the Crossroads.
Kling is no slouch either. With his penchant for presenting sober social commentary via a modest, 'aw, shucks'-style delivery, he does something few modern writers can. He coats the grit in thick layers of polish, shining it up enough that the sparkle draws the audience in. Then, before you know it, you're looking through to that rough foundation still visible beneath the veneer, and that's a fitting means to adapt Jonathan Swift's Gulliver.
We've seen hints of Kling's love for modern takes on myth and folklore in his past writing, but those were just hints. This feature length foray goes beyond mere hinting and showcases one of Kling's greatest strengths as a writer. In it, his nested tales combine the sensibilities of a classic with the realities of his world the way Gaiman's Sandman infused Shakespeare and the Coen Brothers reimagined "The Odyssey."
The fact that Kling's work stands among these successes says a lot about his skill. Viewing a classic through a modern lens is a difficult and often disastrous endeavor, as any sitcom that's ever spoofed "A Christmas Carol" will attest, but Kling & Co. skirt the pitfalls to produce a masterfully crafted modern stage adaptation that retains its humanity instead of abandoning it.
In this show, Kling isn't a mere "simple, old-fashioned storyteller," as he's often billed. He's an author who makes use of the cast around him, unraveling the story of Gulliver's world by virtue of the parallel tales taking place thereabouts. These are the unwritten stories of the people whose lives Gulliver affects, assembled by dialogue plucked from Swift's writing and adapted to the fit the strengths of the show's two leads, Christina Baldwin as Mary and Bradley Greenwald as Gulliver. Kling wrote their parts specifically for them, and it shows. They adopt their respective characters seamlessly. Their performances are a notch beyond the top. It's a shame that they don't share top billing with Kling and Brown, or at least a more prominent spot on the marquee, because the show might have been good without them but it's great with them. So, they deserve the recognition.
"Gulliver Unravels" isn't exactly storytelling. It's actually much more than that: It's a deep, emotional and hilarious play. It's a variety show in which individual sketches and vignettes are woven via music, motion and a solid set into a rich tapestry that recounts Kling's take on the foibles and follies of our own lives, using the foibles and follies of Swift's Gulliver as allegory.
("Gulliver Unravels" continues as 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m. Sun. at the Fitzgerald Theater. A condensed, one-hour radio broadcast is tentatively slated for Christmas Day at Noon, but expect to find much of that show's context and heart trimmed away to fit within the allotted time.)

[Photo: Rob Callahan]