Spinning Tree Brings an Exciting Authenticity To Vanessa Severo’s “Rubik”

A young teen boy in a blazer speaks in front of other teens.

Alex Taylor and the cast of Rubik (Manon Halliburton)

In Spinning Tree Theatre’s latest play, Rubik, a group of young people with an array of developmental challenges are tasked with doing something that is, unfortunately, all too rare: telling their own story.

Vanessa Severo’s play—Spinning Tree’s first-ever commissioned work—is about a group of neurodivergent teens at a summer camp designed to help them flourish. The story follows Tomas, about to enter the ninth grade and in the midst of his parent’s contentious divorce. The version of this story that we’re used to seeing would choose to center Tomas’ mother (Caroline Petersma) and her frustration in her inability to understand her son. Here, we do get that story, and it is told with empathy, but it is undoubtedly through Tomas’ eyes that we’re seeing the world.

Tomas cannot continue a conversation after being interrupted. He does not understand metaphors or figures of speech. He has “meltdowns” in public when he’s overwhelmed. Some of these challenges are depicted with humor (the manifestations of his interpretations of idioms are a delightful running gag), most are deeply profound, but the weight of each is placed on how they affect Tomas in his interactions with the world, not the challenges they present to others in interacting with him.

Severo’s beautiful script, directed here by Rusty Sneary, is brought to life by an exceptional ensemble of young actors. Alex Taylor is phenomenal as Tomas, relatable and extremely compelling as we watch him navigate the complexities of life. Petersma deserves special praise for her turn as Tomas’ mother, struggling to find patience and understanding in relating to her son but floundering, as does Rhaelin Green as the nurturing camp counselor. Ava Armstrong is endlessly endearing as Mia, a precocious camper with a penchant for haikus who challenges Tomas to expand his thinking.

The entire ensemble is truly something special, especially in their captivating movement work. Severo also serves as Movement Director and the physicality she and these young actors bring to the stage is a highlight of the entire production. There is so much humor and joy infused into this poignant short play, it’s exhilarating to watch.

Spinning Tree has already established itself as a unique space for young people with disabilities to express themselves and develop their artistic voices. For Rubik, the company has partnered with Camp Encourage, whose mission “is to provide youth on the autism spectrum meaningful experiences in which they build the knowledge, courage, and skills to be empowered participants in the community.” The result is a deep sense of care and authenticity in bringing these characters’ stories to life.

“Rubik,” a production of Spinning Tree Theatre, runs through May 5 at the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center, 8788 Metcalf Ave, Overland Park. For more information, visit spinningtreetheatre.com.

Vivian Kane

Vivian Kane is a writer living in Kansas City. She covers pop culture and politics for a national audience at The Mary Sue and theatre and film locally, with bylines in The Pitch. She has an MFA in Theatre from CalArts.

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