Benson’s “Hope/Who’s Waldo?” impresses audience opening weekend

Kristi Ruff

What is hope? At what point is it necessary and what point is it merely blinding us to reality? What does it mean to be someone? Senior Nikko Benson’s new work, “Hope/Who’s Waldo” explored these questions over the course of three showings this past weekend.
The show was actually a compilation of two completely different one-act shows. “Hope” shares the story of a group of refugees fleeing the clutches of an oppressive government. The group is led by Daniel, played by sophomore Brian Acker, who brings them to a safe-house owned by Claire, portrayed by Rana Marks, as they wait for resistance leader Miriam Rivers, played by Amanda Ketchpaw, who plans to lead the group across the border to freedom.
The push and pull of the drama was extremely well executed, especially in the scene in which soldiers come to search Claire’s house. The intensity that built throughout that entire scene literally had me gripping the edges of my seat. While the end jarringly culminates in Daniel’s tragic death, it also concludes with the rest of the group, except Claire, successfully crossing the border.
However, I was even more impressed by the music in the show. The music for “Hope” had wonderful dissonance, and a general melodic sense of haunting fear mixed with anticipation. While the performance I attended was slightly pitchy and off-key in select areas, it was performed very well overall.
“Who’s Waldo” was entirely different, and it felt like an entirely unrelated work. Starring the beloved red and white clad children’s book character, the second act follows Waldo, played by Dylan Evans, and his narrator, Nate Peterson, on a quest of self-discovery and love.
Throughout the journey, they meet several other well-known literary characters, such as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Paddington Bear, Madame Butterfly, Nancy Drew and Huckleberry Finn.
At one point during their travels, they find themselves trapped at the Train Station of the Lost. Waldo asks the Cheshire Cat and the Caterpillar about their whereabouts; they inform him, “You are here.” While this scene was interesting, it also seemed to strain to be philosophical, and went on for too long. However, that slight flaw was easily remedied and did not detract from the rest of the play.
After meeting and falling in love with Carmen Sandiego, portrayed by Katy Harth, Waldo decides to forget his quest to find his past and follow her instead. The story was hilarious, and I was very impressed by the wit and humor present throughout. Given the humor, I was especially impressed by the level of depth it also conveyed. Waldo’s philosophical journey, while comedic, is also quite serious and realistic.
The ending saw a collision of sorts between the different worlds of the two plays. The end left the audience with a sense of despondency, an unusual end for most musicals. So why the tragic ending?
“I’ve always felt that it was an important point that as a culture we tend to use comedy as an escape from tragedy, especially in theater but in our lives as well. We always want to end on an uplifting note, but doing so rarely inspires us to action; rather, it allows us to forget about the darker side of things,” explained Benson in an earlier interview.
The musical certainly leaves behind a discouraging and bittersweet memory, but this sense of longing in the message is powerful and inspirational.
While Benson’s accomplishment is certainly impressive, I cannot overlook the actors that pulled off his script. I was especially impressed by Marks, Acker and Ketchpaw in “Hope.” The emotion present in their respective performances was extremely compelling, and they conveyed the gravity of the subject matter flawlessly.
In “Who’s Waldo,” I especially appreciated the performances by Evans, Harth, Sarah Robinson, Rachel Li, Natalie O’Sullivan, Issa Ransom and Zach Garcia. Evans’ portrayal of innocence and bewilderment, Harth’s frank, businesslike candor, Robinson’s amazing accent and Li’s impressive Japanese persona, combined with the humor and musical talent of the supporting cast and chorus, made for a fantastic performance.