NKU‘s Human Services Skewers Our Fetish with Fame

Review by Doug Iden of Human Services: NKU Year End Series

The Y.E.S. (Year End Series) Festival continued at NKU with the world premiere presentation of Tom Baum’s Human Services. Alternating with the other YES Festival participant Unfrozen, Human Services tells the story of a spoiled, shallow female rock star Kelsey (played by Madison Pullins) who is arrested for drug possession and sent to a rehabilitation clinic.

The play opens with a phone dialogue between Kelsey and Momma (Alexa Fangman) and we find out quickly why Kelsey is a hedonistic brat–because her mother is the same. Exchanging insipid air kisses and sophomoric declarations of love, Momma basks in her role as the archetypal stage mother who is infatuated with fame, glory, self-aggrandizement and money.

Presented In the intimate Strauss Theater at NKU, the play castigates the obsession which society has with celebrities. In the absence of “royalty”, we deify air-head Barbie dolls who can’t sing a note outside of a recording studio. But the story is also about maturation and redemption, at least on the part of Kelsey.

When our egotistical rock star arrives at Aspiration House, she is greeted by an ensemble of recovering eccentrics including a transvestite (Daisy, played by Jacob Miller), a woman who sees aliens behind every bush (Carmen, portrayed by Emily Tortorella) and Baxter (Brandon Critchfield), a homeless man who may yet be savable. I would describe this play as a “dramedy” since there is significant campy, satiric comedy overlaying some very serious content. But, above all, it is the story of relationships and how, eventually, most of the characters work together to try to improve themselves and their situations.

Leading the ensemble rehab group is Jacob Miller as the ebullient transvestite, Daisy, who steals virtually every scene they are in. Daisy is an outrageous but kind-hearted soul who mentors Kelsey and tries to steer her though the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the center and with her fellow eccentrics. Daisy can also be jealous, however, and reacts strongly to her perception of unwanted attention shown by others towards Kelsey. Also effective in a mostly comedic role is Emily Tortorella as Carmen, who has a hilarious scene when she mistakes some bug exterminators dressed in decontamination suits as alien spacemen. Critchfield imbues Baxter with a level of sanity and dignity and shows the potential for real recovery. His equanimity contrasts with the craziness surrounding him. As polar opposites of the inmates, Kearston Hawkins-Johnson plays the institution’s boss as imperious and officious, while her chief psychiatrist Rachel (Emily Borst) is rather naïve but is genuinely trying to help her clients. A latecomer, Wyatt (Matt Dreyer), plays a significant role in the story. And did I mention that there is a stalker?

Another target of Baum’s derision is the paparazzi who try to invade Kelsey’s privacy, first at home and then in the rehab facility. Playing a bit like two of the Three Stooges, Milo (Matt Nassida) and Roman (Landis Helwig) assume various guises (including cops and the above mentioned exterminators) in their quest to get pictures and dirt for the publicity crazed media.

But the story would not work without the believable transition of Kelsey from narcissist to a caring and involved person. Interestingly, that transition is manifested by a role reversal with her mother when Kelsey becomes the parent and Momma the child. Kelsey also, in secret, provides both Baxter and Daisy with the financial opportunities to succeed. Pullins does the transition admirably.

One caution is that play is replete with raw language which, at times, seems gratuitous.

Director Michael Hatton controls the insanity and choreographs the rapid entrances and exits well in the small theater space. The costumes (Margo Birdwhistell) are appropriate for the characters including button-down suits for the professional women and a series of dresses for the tall, statuesque Daisy (Miller). Despite an early glitch which required a re-start of the play, the lighting and graphics (William Milligan) effectively showed a transition on the one-set stage designed by Kaitlin Findley.

Human Services with its counterpart Unfrozen continue at NKU through April 30.

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