Oakland Center brings ‘Shel Silverstein’ to stage

By Milan Paurich

Cartoonist, writer of short stories, plays, children’s books and poetry, and even an acclaimed songwriter (Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” and Dr. Hook’s “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” among them), the late Shel Silverstein’s wildly eclectic body of work is as uncategorizable as it is impressive.

Consisting of 10 short sketches that don’t really tell a “story” in the conventional sense, “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein” is certainly an unconventional evening of theater, particularly in these parts. The Oakland Center for the Arts’ production of Silverstein’s posthumous 2001 play that opens tomorrow night for a two-weekend run not only marks its local premiere, but also the first stage appearance of esteemed local actor-director David El’Hatton since a life-threatening illness that effectively sidelined him for most of the 2009 theater season.

Shawn Lockaton, best-known for his unbridled musical-comedy performances in Rob Joki-directed shows (“Reefer Madness,” “Bat Boy: The Musical,” “Rocky Horror Show,” etc.) directs. In a recent interview, Lockaton discussed the genesis of the production, Silverstein’s unique comic sensibility and the return of El’Hatton.

Q. What made you select the play? And have you always been a Shel Silverstein fan?

A. I was first introduced to “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein” about a year ago by a YSU theater major friend who wanted to direct the play as part of his graduation project. He found out a few weeks later that the show wasn’t approved, so I borrowed the script and fell in love with a few of the darker skits. A few months later when Rob Joki asked me to take on a directing project at the Oakland, we discussed a few titles that reflected my style and, ironically enough, he mentioned “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein,” and we were both instantly sold on the idea. I picked the title based on its quirkiness alone, and the lack of connectivity between scenes. You really get the feeling that you’re watching Shel Silverstein’s short stories and poems come to life, and the dark, underlying tone is irresistible. You can almost sense Silverstein’s disconnection with reality through every spoken line. I also believe that the play strongly touches on our social inadequacies and says a lot about how we interact with each other in modern society.

Local audiences are used to seeing a story — beginning, middle, end — unfold before them. They won’t get just one giant, plotted-out story line here: They actually get 10 short, hilariously cruel stories.

I have a very personal connection to Silverstein as well. I grew up reading every children’s book he ever published, and I remember getting a different Silverstein book on my birthday for four years straight. When I found out that Silverstein had published adult-oriented material, I couldn’t resist the idea of bringing my favorite children’s author to life on the Oakland stage ... in a much more grown-up way, of course.

Q. Silverstein’s dark humor is definitely not for all tastes. What would you say to prospective ticketbuyers as an inducement for them to try something a little off the beaten path?

A. Yes, Silverstein’s humor is definitely off, and at times a little absurd. I would implore anyone to come out and see the show who has ever picked up a Silverstein book — as an adult or child — and found themselves reading poem after poem, or tried to make sense of all the silly drawings on the side of the pages.

Even though the subject matter isn’t quite as wholesome as “Where The Sidewalk Ends” or “A Light in the Attic,” Silverstein’s distinct phrasing and writing style are unmistakable. All of the scenes/stories maintain a similar playfulness that has become his trademark style.

Q. “An Evening” marks the return of David El’Hatton to the stage for the first time since his life-threatening illness last year. Did Dave have any trouble getting back into the whole rehearsal/blocking/memorization groove, or was it like putting on an old pair of gloves for him?

A. I’m honored and humbled to have Dave El’Hatton as part of my cast. Dave could never lose his knack for the theater. He has such a natural sense of the stage, a great feel for comic timing and imagery/visualization. He really is one of those rare actors who can be given complete artistic freedom and be trusted with it. A lot of the roles are moderately physical, so I had to choose Dave’s parts carefully. Having appeared with him in “Titanic” and “The Secret Garden” at the Youngstown Playhouse, I’m aware of what he is capable of doing onstage. I believe Dave’s a great actor and that he knows his limits at this point, but he also knows how to be funny and doesn’t let his rehabilitation inhibit his performance.


What: “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein”

Where: The Oakland Center for the Arts

When: 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, next Thursday and Feb. 11, 12 and 13; and 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: Call (330) 746-0404

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