Unfrozen, at NKU‘s Y.E.S., Will Melt Your Heart

Review by Doug Iden of Unfrozen: N.K.U Year End Series

NKU’s bi-annual Y.E.S. (Year End Series) Festival opened with the world premiere of Mark Eisman’s play Unfrozen. The play is a somewhat whimsical view of a family obsessed with competitive figure skating told from the viewpoint of the youngest daughter who can’t stay upright on the ice. Obviously, this can lead to familial distress, exacerbated when Michelle (played beguilingly by freshman Catherine Young) discovers her true strength – Latin. Under the tutelage of her Latin teacher Mr. Pullman (Kevin Birdwhistell), Michelle is teamed with fellow student Joel (enthusiastically portrayed by Cale Wheeler) as a two-person Latin team which will eventually compete in a major competition. A major metaphor is the fact that Latin is a dead language which almost no one studies any more.

One issue with the play, however, is that, through a combination of under-spoken and unmiked actors and significant laughter from the predominately NKU student audience, it was difficult to understand some of the dialogue, and I failed to catch some of the characters’ names, so I apologize ahead if I have misidentified any of the characters. The level of enunciation was excellent for some of the actors but inadequate for others. This is, basically, a funny play, but I’m sure that I missed some of the comedy.

To continue, Michelle feels somewhat rejected by her ice skating obsessed family and moves in with Joel’s family, led by parents who have an enormous collection of decorative plates, under the impression that they are accumulating a fortune in collectibles. Father has quit his job as a teacher of Esperanto (another dead language) due to lack of interest by students and is now fully employed trying to promote his plate-centric avocation. Michelle has moved from one dysfunctional surreal family to another.

In her own family, Michelle’s divorced mother is tutoring her other two children (as first a “pairs” couple and then an ice dancing group) and another girl, whom Michelle dubs “Princess Margaret (Ashley Martin), with little success. Her ex-husband Victor (Ray Dzhorgov) has returned to Russia after a lackluster skating career with his ex-wife. The emphasis on skating (to the detriment of their ongoing education) is creating a dead-end environment for the entire family.

Even though the above description may seem overly dramatic, the play unfolds in a charmingly light-hearted manner due to a combination of excellent, almost screwball comedy dialogue and sparse but clever staging. Because of the ice skating motif, the stage appears to be a giant rink with many of the actors simulating a skating shuffle while dancing around the area. Impressionistic mountains in the back add to the illusion. Scenes moving from Michelle’s home to the school to Joel’s home are all accomplished by changing the spotlight, moving some furniture and lowering some props or signage from the ceiling, all designed by Ronald Shaw. “Movement” was created by Margie Wiemann which is an unusual but appropriate title since there is a cross between simulated choreography and real dancing by the ice skating groups.

I was intrigued by the sometimes gentle, sometimes pointed spoof of competitive figure skating. Ashley Martin does a nice job of portraying the (deliberately) stereotypical skating diva with emphasis on makeup, hair and wardrobe. In one cute scene, Michelle must remove her normal teenage clothes because the closet is filled with dozens of glitzy, outrageous skating costumes designed by Rachel Alford. Overall, the direction by Mike King was very clever with the caveat about the actors’ enunciation. Another interesting touch was Michelle’s ongoing dream about being in Antarctica with a human-sized penguin (Erin Reynolds). Joel insists that he is the penguin that Michelle is dreaming about. Other members of the ensemble include McKenzie Reese (Teresa), Trase Milburn (Ben), Natalie Bellamy (Liz) and Chloe Price (Barbie).

But the play is carried by Catherine Young’s depiction of Michelle. It is constructed with a lot of dialogue directed at the audience which seems to be the trend lately. Young is bright, energetic, outgoing and a sheer delight who has crafted a character in keeping with the whimsical nature of the play.

Unfrozen (which has multiple meanings in the play) is alternating with Human Services throughout the Y.E.S Festival at NKU.

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