Stupidhead! Is a Complex Comedy of Errors for the Modern Day

Pictured: Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson in Stupidhead! at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library
Photo: The Kick & Push Festival

by Lin Young

When you walk into Stupidhead! at the Central Public Library, the floor is covered in zig-zags of candy-coloured tape that suggest—thanks to a paper mâché brain that gets wheeled out when the show begins—the wavelengths of the brain. In a lot of ways, this is indicative of the show: a complex topic rendered in fun, bright colours. Produced by Disorganized Productions in association with Outside the March, Stupidhead! centres around performer Katherine Cullen as she chronicles her life and experiences with dyslexia (specifically, a form of dyslexia called dyscalculia, that doesn’t affect reading so much as spatial awareness and math). Co-written by Cullen and lyricist/musician Britta Johnson (of acclaimed Canadian musical Life After fame), Cullen tells stories and works it all out through song while Johnson accompanies her on piano. Claiming to have a “big song in her dyslexic heart,” Cullen frames the show as the fulfilment of a dream she’s always had to star in a musical, despite the fact that she has no formal training or ability (as Cullen quips, she’s “no Julie Andrews” and doesn’t give a damn). Much of the show takes on this goofball, self-effacing tone, as Cullen takes us through a series of non- chronological anecdotes about her various misadventures, framing her life as a kind of comedy of errors due in equal parts to her dyslexia and naturally ‘weird’ personality (she gleefully admits that she sometimes she can’t tell the difference). Some highlights include anecdotes about going camping with communist puppeteers, the pain of old wounds gleaned from ‘90s poetry competitions, and the incredibly specific interests that people list on their online dating profiles. Cullen is effervescent and witty as the central performer, owning the space with a wriggly, zany energy that nevertheless stays grounded thanks to a strong script and fluid pacing (tribute to the direction of Aaron Willis). The writing is zippy and big-hearted, and consistently sent the room into flurries of laughter (a fun, rebellious experience in and of itself, considering the play is staged inside a glass room at the public library). The whole thing has an improvisational quality, particularly whenever Johnson and Cullen share a glance or a laugh. Their organic chemistry is the quiet anchor of the show, as Johnson laughs at Cullen’s line reads, or Cullen shoots Johnson a conspiratorial grin. The two jump fluidly between script and more off-the-cuff interactions with the audience. As the show progresses, Cullen gradually lets us in on her messier, more difficult memories, such as her childhood embarrassment over getting lost walking home from her next door neighbour’s house, or a persistent feeling that she’s always doing something wrong. The slow transition gives the show an additional emotional weight and complexity that isn’t afraid to leave some questions unanswered, resisting easy conclusions or neatly-tied-up narrative bows. This is a show that laughs and cries in equal measure at the idea that in life we have to ‘find our way.’ Instead, I think the show is more interested in what it means to be lost; about what it feels like to have to negotiate a world that doesn’t understand you, and how that shapes you, for better or worse, as a result. In this way, the show fires on all cylinders: riotously funny, musically charming, and emotionally resonant, Stupidhead! is a perfect blend of humour, heart, and soul.

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