Drama Talk & Drinks: Max Understood – “Maybe he’s actually 18 and looks like he’s 8″

Last weekend we ventured out to Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater to see the premiere of Max Understood described as “The musical adventures of a precocious child with autism”. We love checking out new works because they always provide new and out-of-the-box approaches to story telling. This show definitely met that expectation.

Photo by Mark Palmer

Katie: I came into this show with high expectations since I’ve known of Nancy Carlin (the writer) for a long time and she does amazing work. The opening really grabbed my attention and I was like wow, this is going to be an in-your-face newschool type of musical. The minute the actors playing the parents came out I was taken out of it because they started acting and singing as if it was an old school musical. The transitions in those first few scenes were very awkward. I felt the world of this show didn’t have a strong foundation so the style seemed misplaced.

Brittany: I had really mixed feelings about the show too. I thought the design was really cool with the white set pieces being used for projections. Everything was very visually interesting. Definitely the sound design was awesome, really amazing surround sound. Having sound move across the stage and come from different areas is really neat. And they took advantage of the fact that the space can do that…which is cool.

K: The music of the whole show was amazing, and I agree, the sound design was maybe the best I’ve ever heard. However, some of the lyrics and melodies were kind of corny and didn’t really match the music and sound design for me.

B: The kid was ridiculously good. He was tiny and he was on stage the entire time and he was really acting. Not acting like a kid “acts” but was actually acting. I’ve never seen a kid have that big of role and pull it off. Maybe he’s actually 18 and looks like he’s 8 or something because that was crazy.

K: And his singing was also really good. Sweet and haunting, and so precious.

B: Yeah, and the parents…I think you hit it on the head in terms of when it started I was like okay, this is going to be a more straight forward musical about how parents cope with an autistic child. Then it wasn’t that and I was happy it wasn’t that because I don’t think that would have been as interesting. But I don’t feel they set up expectations in the right way. So when stuff started getting weird and we started getting in the autistic kid’s head I kept having a bunch of moments of  “what the hell is going on, are we in his head or not?” Maybe that’s part of the director’s intention, they want you to be questioning the strange things that are happening, but as an audience member I found that really jarring. It made it more difficult to sit through than if they had set it up right in the beginning. Obviously it’s hard to know what it’s like to be in an autistic child’s head so it was an interesting interpretation.

K: It was definitely interesting and I can take a little bit of experimental theater but there were moments I felt I was making this face…how would you describe this face I’m making? (Katie shows Brittany her face)

B: That’s a “What the fuck face”.

K: Yeah. There were also moments when I was thinking “Wow, this show sounds so cool, wow, that little boy is so good, wow, this set – I love the moving projections”.  So I kept bouncing between “Wow” and “WTF”.  For whatever reason, it’s so hard to put into words for me, I just felt disconnected and not fully invested in the story and not taken away. So that’s why I’m left feeling mixed.


The Verdict: If you have an open mind and if you can swallow a certain amount of experimental theater, this is good experimental theater to chew on. You will experience an innovative set and sound design and a very different kind of new play where you really don’t know what is reality and what isn’t, told through a very talented child actor. In fact, one of the most talented child actors we have ever seen. However, if the thought of experimental theater would make you want to shoot yourself in the foot – don’t go because you will shoot yourself in the foot.

The Drama Talk: This is a well produced, extremely interesting piece of experimental theater about autism. Autism is something people are starting to talk about a lot more so it’s nice to have theater contribute to the conversation and create narratives around it. It’s a really important conversation to be having. This isn’t a show that everyone would love, though. Being in an autistic kid’s head isn’t the most coherent or relaxing place to be and the story reflects that, which is most likely intentional. We did appreciate how the show didn’t overstay it’s welcome. It was 70 minutes with no intermission.

The Drinks: We are so happy that now there is an awesome bar at Fort Mason just down the way from the Cowell Theater called Interval. It’s a “bar, cafe, museum, and the home of The Long Now Foundation” and definitely worth checking out even if you don’t have a show to go to at Fort Mason. We both ordered from their fun list of specialty daiquiris, and were glad we did…so good!

Max Understood runs through this weekend at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater. Tickets are available through City Box Office for $30-$40. At the moment Goldstar also has tickets for sale for $13.50 – $21.25. Also, get to the show early so you can check out Sound Maze for Max: An Interactive Exhibit of Invented Instruments at the firehouse at Fort Mason Center, which will be on display from April 4th – May 3rd.

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