Off-Broadway Review: THE NEAR DISASTER OF JASPER & CASPER (Theatre Row)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on September 8, 2022

in Theater-New York


Jones and Schmidt, the creative team behind one of Broadway’s longest running hits, The Fantasticks, also wrote another, lesser-know musical called Philemon. That show is about a destitute street clown who unwittingly becomes a rebel hero during the Roman persecution of the Christians – not exactly the most obvious subject matter for a musical comedy. Nevertheless, the show begins with a song called “Within This Empty Space” which is a paean to the potential magic, adventure and transformation held within a bare stage. “Within this empty space, there is nothing we cannot do, we can seek to create something great from the past or search for something new…” goes the opening lyric. I don’t know if super-talented performer and writer Jason Woods is familiar with this particular theater tune but his very well-written, very funny, totally transporting and effectively heart-tugging solo show, The Near Disaster of Jasper & Casper, more than proves that magic, adventure and transformation are possible on a seemingly bare stage.

I say “seemingly” because when Mr. Woods is onstage at Theatre Row that space is no longer bare but filled with characters, adventure, a dragon, castles, dungeons, enchantment, a witch turning into a mouse, a hilariously self-absorbed older brother, mysterious mists, glowing swords, ghost haunted tapestries, a hero’s journey, snarky attitudes and many, many laughs — all conjured through Mr. Woods’ sublime storytelling and physical performance abilities. This piece is a throwback to a long-ago time when an actor had to rely solely on the images and thoughts he created in the audience’s mind in order to catch the imagination and hold them spellbound. It’s quite astonishing to witness, especially when realizing that this sweet, unassuming production is mere blocks away from multi-million dollar behemoths using state of the art technology for the same effect. Yet this grown-up fairy tale — a Princess Bride in sensibility — is as engaging as its neighbors if not more so — because Mr. Woods activates the audience’s own imagination and we have as much fun playing in our own minds as in his.

The story is well-trod, fantasy terrain. Set somewhere during the Middle Ages — probably — the play begins on October 32nd when an unctuous royal attendant named Festwick announces to the villagers of Bellalore that the Festival for the Queen, who is quite evil (of course), will be held on October 34th. A somewhat pushy witch named Winifred is in the announcement crowd along with our young hero, Jasper, and his brother Casper, an actor whose great belief in his own talent is in indirect relationship to his actual talent. It turns out Jasper was adopted by Casper’s family and, now a boy of fifteen, he longs to find his birth family. Soon the brothers have a chance meeting with witch Winifred who has “one blue eye and one green eye, neither of which originally hers”. These borrowed eyes give Winifred a deeply penetrating sight that allows her to the see the Truth about people and situations. And she sees a reality about family, mission and social position for Jasper that sounds impossible. Or is it? Like every young hero who both wants and fears greatness, Jasper pursues, is pushed, backs into, stumbles upon, and denies who he authentically is until eventually manifesting a life beyond his wildest dreams — but not without some severe trials along the way. And they lived happily ever after.

If this all sounds familiar, it is. And that is not a bad thing. For not only is the plot familiar, so are the characters. But it’s the alchemy that happens when Woods mixes this generic plotline with off-kilter incarnations of recognizable character-types, filtered through his incredible wit and piercing sense of humor that makes the show feel original, even within all the outside inspirations. For instance, he does an hilarious, spot-on Ian McKellen for the hammy actor Casper. Winifred could easily fit in with the rest of the girls on the couch in SNL’s “Coffee Talk with Linda Richman” (a truly inspired choice for the witch). The Evil Queen has a Scottish (?) henchman named Cadmus who must be Groundkeeper Willie’s first cousin. There’s a dragon that was probably Smaug’s understudy. And there’s a ring that needs protection and a sword that gets stuck in a stone. And a ton of amusing malapropisms. And clever anachronisms. Yet it all works because the familiarity becomes part of the fun, as Woods is a truly gifted actor. He is not doing imitations but creating full, original characters — though perhaps with some borrowed DNA.

The play is scored with Hollywood adventure-type music, also written by Woods, which sometimes give the sense of experiencing a film rather than a play. It is a play on a finite stage, but goes everywhere a film does — often creating that same sense of fluidity and timelessness that happens when fully engaged with a movie. Yet, it is just a man onstage without any props, supported by excellent sound and light design by Davey Ferdinand, who uses mostly varying shades of purple to create a multitude of locations. Expertly staged and directed with almost surgical precision by Michelle Svenson Kindy, Woods instantly goes from character to character — his body and face transforming with each persona. He also plays an outside narrator character that tells the whole story. At one point, Woods narrated a fight scene while playing the multiple characters in the fight scene while fighting. Mr. Woods is either a phenomenal actor or triplets.

While some solo shows are a slog through a performer’s personal trauma or a thinly veiled showcase in the hope of attracting professional attention, this work is neither. The Near Disaster of Jasper & Casper is not about Jason Woods but a story illustrating his idea of the kind of leadership, concern, empathy and vision it takes to create an equitable, peaceful society. And as presented by the denizens of Bellalore, what a delightful, entertaining and welcome idea it is too.

photos by Russ Rowland

The Near Disaster of Jasper & Casper
Theatre 5 @ Theatre Row
Tue-Sat at 7:30; Sat & Sun at 2
ends on September 18, 2022
for tickets, visit Theatre Row

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Redgie Gutshall September 11, 2022 at 4:04 am

I know Jason Woods as a fellow actor here in Jacksonville, Florida, Throughout his time in J-ville, he has maintained a degree of acting excellence rarely seen anywhere. This excellently written review captures his repeatedly displayed special talent. I would give everything to have a performance of mine so praised. No matter, how lucky New York is to have the opportunity to share in his superlative Theatre virtuosity. Onward & Upward, Jason. There are more giants to be slain! And more lucky audiences to entertain.


Kevin Vavasseur September 17, 2022 at 10:26 am

Thanks for your comment.


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