Young Playwrights Festival
By Erik Piepenburg
The four works in Pegasus Players' 15th annual Young Playwrights Festival bring to mind not so much the devil-may-care attitudes of a generation suckling furiously at the teat of prosperity, as you might imagine at a time when not giving your teenager a cell phone and his or her own SUV is akin to child abuse. No, these playwrights are aware of the world and its discontents. They may be young--the entrants come from some 70 Chicago teen programs and high schools--but they're hardly complacent despite their inexperience.
Teenage troubles are in perpetuity redundant, which can make for painfully universal theater. How many times can you hear about hating your parents' divorce, or being too fat or thin, or waiting for your first kiss, or how your best friend died too young? But the works chosen for this year's festival demonstrate a keen, wonderfully mature understanding of history, language, and relationships.
It's a shift that's come about not necessarily because new stories are being told but because they're being told in a new way, a way shockingly dissimilar from that of just 15 years ago, when irony-laden smirks were fine-tuned watching John Hughes films and pouting to Echo & the Bunnymen. The annual Marilyn Bianchi Kids' Playwriting Festival at Cleveland's Dobama Theatre, which I saw then, is a case in point: the plays were rife with adolescent angst straight out of a high school literary magazine, addressing the end of the world, furious social divisions, substance abuse. Yet kids back then saluted these problems with Judy Blume-style domestic grief in small, personal works.
The current generation of teenagers is arguably the most pampered and pandered-to in American history. And there's little we don't know about them that they're not willing to tell us in, like, detail. So what's there to find out? Plenty, as evidenced by this year's festival. Nine actors play a variety of roles in the four pieces, each of which gets its own director and set.
The most engaging of the four is Deborah Larys's My Neighbors Are Rejects. Breezily directed with sitcomlike speed by Matt Wallace, the play follows a teenage single mother and her brother as they rekindle their friendship at a busy Chicago coffeehouse. Allowing the characters, even the minor ones, to address us directly, Larys gives each one a moment to tell his or her story uninhibited by the coffeehouse crowd. Demonstrating an ear for her peers' speech patterns, Larys gives even the incidental characters--a guy on the make, a former girlfriend, a date from the night before--voices worth hearing. The standout performance belongs to Benjamin Newton as the brother, blending teenage braggadocio and slouchy insecurity. But the play's gay waiter (a fun Matt Young) must be newly out of the closet: in almost every line he declares--snap! swish! pivot!--that, yes, he is gay. Predictably, Larys gets the most laugh mileage out of this character, but he's a stereotype and should be toned down.
Also attuned to the power of language is Charity Hope Tolliver's memory piece For Love or Money, with a story set in the 1920s in the Mississippi Delta. Elizabeth (China Colston), a young girl, learns that her betrothed in a marriage arranged by her father isn't the bad seed she anticipated. Tolliver's earnest writing allows emotions like anger, resentment, and acceptance to quickly rise to the surface and subside; as directed by David Barr III, Colston delivers both sassy comebacks and desperate pleas convincingly. Although For Love or Money deals with almost too many issues, Tolliver's dreamy setting and emotionally direct storytelling will resonate with anyone of any age who's confronted the uncertainty of love.
The other two plays address what it means to be Jewish; both are directed by Jeff Ginsberg and Susan Padveen. Tichye Krakowski's And After the Fire asks: if a flower grows in Auschwitz, is there life in Auschwitz? Filled with obscure references and Hebrew phrases, this play goes bravely looking for God and finds answers that belie Krakowski's youth. With a nod to the stylization of Robert Wilson, Krakowski doesn't back down from addressing Nazi horrors, employing much browbeating and carefully calculated choreography. Marvelously set against a backdrop of fences wrapped in barbed wire and draped with the dead's clothing (here, as in the other works, Julie Lutgen's set design is picture-perfect) and haunted by Steve Mezger's sound design of traditional music, the play shows concentration-camp victims as pawns in the hands of Jewish prophets asking: is God just or evil?
Kate Goldstein's Another Story chronicles a day in the life of a Jewish girl, Michal (a too mild Lisa LaCuesta), or "Mike" for short, who sits her sister down for a lesson in family history, essentially delivering a paper on Jewish history turned play. It's unclear why Mike's sister doesn't already know certain things, such as why their parents didn't get along, and the piece could use a touch of joy now and then. But Goldstein does provide some insight into contemporary teenage Jewish life.
Stepping outside the quotidian teen experience, these playwrights tell tales filled with allegory and informed by metaphor. There are no family woes, no maudlin street stories, no "my parents don't understand" retreads. Handwringers for the future of American theater should be heartened.
An observation: all four winners this year are girls (there are a number of male finalists and honorable mentions, however), as they were last year. I find it difficult to believe that there are no teenage boys' voices worth being heard. It's unlikely that Pegasus Players is exhibiting any gender bias--certainly the festival doesn't shy away from multicultural issues and the occasional curse word or sexual situation. But it's a shame we're not hearing from young men in this otherwise fine festival of youthful voices.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Brosilow.