Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Sleeping Giant
Know Theatre of Cincinnati
Review by Rick Pender

Also see Rick's recent review of The Importance of Being Earnest

Tess Talbot and Ryan-Chavez Richmond
Photo by Dan R. Winters
Know Theatre of Cincinnati has a reputation for pushing the envelope. As the city's most avant-garde theatrical producer–it has also presented the annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival for more than two decades–it's the go-to venue for work by progressive playwrights. Plays by Steve Yockey are among its most frequent offerings, including Pluto (2014), The Fisherman's Wife (2016), Heavier Than ... (2017), and Mercury (2019). His play Sleeping Giant is kicking off the company's 26th season.

Yockey has also established a reputation as a writer of contemporary television series. He wrote and for "Supernatural" on The WB and earned an Emmy nomination as the showrunner for "The Flight Attendant" (HBO). He's presently at work on an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "Dead Boy Detectives" for Netflix. He's a guy with a prolific imagination, just the kind of writer that resonates with the folks at Know Theatre. Sleeping Giant debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019 and had its American premiere last fall in Salt Lake City. Andrew Hungerford, Know's artistic director, staged this production.

While it opens with a relatively naturalistic scene of a pair of young lovers (Jared Earland and Brianna Miller) on the brink of an exuberant marriage proposal at a lakeside house, Sleeping Giant quickly evolves into a series of absurdist, seemingly disconnected scenes. These are enacted by the same actors and two more (Ryan-Chavez Richmond and Tess Talbot) in a dizzying variety of 18 different roles and a series of head-spinning interactions. The preface to the proposal has been spectacular fireworks that appear to have awakened a frightening perhaps mythical creature from the bottom of the lake.

The common thread–or perhaps it's a tentacle–between these scenes is the ominous impact of the creature, who is suggested by an immense eyeball as well as references to raw fish and projections (designed by Douglas J. Borntrager) of ominous imagery on the blank walls of a room that's changed from scene to scene with slight rearrangements of furniture and wall art.

The scenes range across a bewildering array of interactions among people with some connection to the lake. Barbara and Maggie have their brunch plans interrupted. Mabel bakes a poisonous cake for a pair of guests who don't survive. A woman wears a bizarre green hat that she insists is a "fascinator." A gay male couple find their relationship going quickly off the rails after a confession. And in a hallucinatory re-creation of a scene derived from a novel that the fireworks guy referenced in the first scene features a Polynesian butterfly king with marionettes and baskets of sacrificial meat. It's all pretty strange.

But it does begin to weave together across the 75-minute production. It seems that Yockey's characters are wrestling with something that is unknowable and fear-inducing. Interestingly, it's not the creature in the lake but rather the emotions that its presence evokes. One character in says, "Everything symbolizes something." That's certainly what Yockey seems to have in mind, and it's how the scenes of his show will affect audiences: No sooner do you get a glimmer of understanding than you are whisked off to a new confrontation that points to another possible implication. It will keep theatergoers off-balance.

But each scene seems to portray people seeking something to believe in, even while their surreal situations are alarmingly bizarre. Do they need answers from religion or politics or something even more expansive, perhaps societal? That's never made clear — beyond the fact that people are fearful, yearning for something they can't quite grasp, and grasping at solutions, some sensible and others ludicrous, to address their concerns.

Sleeping Giant is not a play for theater lovers who desire a satisfying story with a clear-cut message. But Know has assembled a well-acted, provocative production that will leave audiences willing to be led through a strange narrative thinking about the implications after the curtain call. Some will be mystified, others dissatisfied. But everyone will be trying to piece together what they've witnessed. That's certainly what playwright Yockey intended.

Sleeping Giant runs through August 20, 2023, at Know Theatre of Cincinnati, 1120 Jackson Street (in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood), Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit or call 513-300-5669.