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Encore Studio explores marginalization with humor and heart in Acts to Grind V
Jenny Kopp takes a call in '911 and Its Many Uses.'
Credit:KelsyAnne Schoenhaar

Many mentions of Madison's Encore Studio for the Performing Arts come with a reductive label: "theater company for those with disabilities." It's understandable given the rarity of this type of company. It also provides some necessary context, but it doesn't provide perspective.

A "theater company for those with disabilities" can be dismissed with a patronizing air, but perspective is hard to ignore, especially when framed by a personal story. To that end, Encore aims to bring an alternative perspective to the local theater community. In Acts to Grind V -- their latest show of short plays, running through Oct. 20 -- the experiences of the overlooked, from surreal moments to joyous triumphs, are fleshed out and made relatable.

The first vignette, "Dancing Worm," is a personal story by Encore vet Robin Parks. This story describes choreoathetosis, the involuntary muscle spasms that affect her and her late father. A trip to the grocery store becomes both heartbreaking and hilarious when her father's wheelchair gets stuck in an endless loop. The scene brims with slapstick comedy when the chair topples a tower of soup cans. Parks' monologue focuses on the dark humor of the situation. She laughs in the background as a grocery aisle becomes a messy playground. When the store manager ousts the duo, it's mentioned in passing. It's expected that instead of helping a disabled man, an employee would suggest he "take [his] business somewhere else."

Frustration with disaffected caregivers and distant authorities is the focus of many of these shorts. These works explore a concept familiar to most but much more common and dire for those in need of care.

"Putting Out Fires" finds Encore staple Connie Alsum resorting to a 911 call just to get to the bathroom after a snowstorm strands other potential helpers. The responding firefighters are more interested in looking heroic and breaking into song than helping someone so small do something so seemingly minor.

The funny and clever "911 and Its Many Uses" uses filmed segments and a silent-movie-style piano score to frame the caregiver-needy relationship as a cat-and-mouse game. The play also marshals childlike drawings to tell the story of Toni, a woman who harms herself for attention. A crayon-drawn image of a father leaving a family while his daughter harms herself is more depressing than the live-action scenes. As Toni talks to a 911 operator, her caregiver goes on a comical hunt complete with a yippy dog dubbed with the ferocious bark of a German Shepherd. The disjointed structure of "911" makes Toni seem appropriately lost, and while upbeat, the ending doesn't point to an easy resolution.

"Pills for Pooh" and "Fresh and Clean" also examine surreal situations but are less successful in part due to sparer staging and familiar character types. "Fresh and Clean" tweaks the caretaker theme. In this short, an in-home nurse tires of her coworker's constant texting and flippant attitude. Unfortunately, it just doesn't share the sharp humor of other skits.

Though the show's Blues Brothers-style intros and outros seem like afterthoughts, it's hard to complain about them since the cast seems to be having so much fun. It's also hard to top Parks' heartfelt portrait of a family on wheels. Parks, her father and her polio-survivor mother all depend on wheelchairs, which makes her wheel-less younger sister feel left out. In another context, the sister could be described as a regular girl in a family of uncommon people. But Parks asserts that her sister's an outsider, just like almost everyone else.

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